An Affair to Remember – McShep style

by

Tira Nog


Rodney McKay snapped his suitcase shut. His gaze wandered around the bedroom, looking for forgotten items.

There was a time when the king-sized bed, the posh furniture, and Fifth Avenue penthouse view out his window had completely awed him. Considering the utter poverty of his childhood, when he'd arrived in Manhattan, hot water had impressed him. But those days were long gone now, along with his innocence and hope.

He knew he was being an absolute fool, but he really believed that this vacation might fix the problems in his relationship with Trent. Not that Trent thought there were any problems, and perhaps there weren't – for Trent. The guy blew in here once a week, dropped off a pile of schematics for Rodney to work on, stayed long enough to fuck him, and then disappeared until it was time to pick up the finished product. Then the entire sordid cycle would repeat itself.

It wasn't always like this, Rodney reminded himself. There was a time when it hadn't mattered to Trent that he was arrogant, petty, and bad with people, a time when Trent had been here nearly every night, and the sex had been good. But these days Trent's touch left him cold, and, though Rodney tried to pretend, he could see in Trent's brown eyes that it was the same for him.

But this vacation was going to fix that. Rodney knew if they could just get some significant time alone together, if he could get Trent away from that office where his lover was under his controlling father's thumb, that they could get back to where they'd been five years ago.

Rodney did his best to ignore the whisper of What would that change? that shivered through him. It didn't take a genius like himself to realize that, no matter how successful this cruise, that the moment they got home, Trent would be right back in the closet, dating that girl to allay his family's suspicion, and dropping by Rodney's only when he could come up with an airtight alibi to cover his absence.

Frustrated by his own inability to ignore reality, Rodney snapped on the radio for some distraction, and turned to go through his travel bag to make sure he'd put the Coppertone in. Considering the strength of the French Riviera's sunlight, he knew he'd burn no matter what, but with his sensitive skin, he had to take every precaution he could. He only hoped that the ship's menu would detail which meals contained citrus. Otherwise, this could be a very short trip for him.

He'd just found the three brown bottles of sun tanning lotion in his over-packed bag when the classical music cut off for a news break. Rodney tried not to listen, for he had no interest in current events, but the normally restrained announcer sounded especially animated as he reported, "And in the social news, international playboy Johnnie Sheppard was once again caught in flagrante delicto with another man. Though his immoral behavior has shocked and disgusted people worldwide, his fiancée, gravel heiress Elizabeth Weir, worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 million, insists that the marriage will go on as planned. I don't know about you, but I'd like to know what this Johnnie Sheppard's got . . . ."

Rodney snapped off the radio. Trent lived in terror of engendering that kind of shock and disgust. He wondered what it was like to be Sheppard, a man who could just grin at the reporters when they snapped a photo of him kissing another man and mildly say, "You caught me, boys," like Sheppard had simply had it pointed out that he'd left his fly open, instead of being caught in a situation that would ruin most men's lives. Rodney remembered reading that particular news story with something like awe for the handsome man with the boyish grin. No matter what Sheppard did, the press seemed to love him. Oh, there'd be some backlash to Sheppard's antics, a few articles declaring him a moral degenerate and damning him to hell for his unnatural proclivities, but on the whole, the press seemed to admire the man. It was hard not to admire someone so confident that he didn't give a damn what the entire world thought of him.

Rodney would give his right arm if Trent had even a hundredth of Sheppard's courage. But Trent would sprout wings before he'd admit to anyone that he had a male lover.

The handsome playboy left Rodney's mind as he heard the front door open.

He hated how his heart jumped at the sound of the apartment door opening and closing, how he lived for these weekly trysts with Trent, despite his disillusionment.

Trying to play it cool, because he knew how things went when he was over-excited, Rodney moved out into the living room to greet Trent.

The first thing he noticed was that his lover didn't have any suitcases with him. Nor was Trent dressed for casual travel. He was in his usual brown business suit, which, while attractive on his wide, athletic body, was hardly suitable for a cruise.

"Hey, Rodney," Trent greeted, his handsome face fixed in a fake looking grin.

"Are your bags down in the lobby?" Rodney asked, his gut clenching in cold dismay, because even before Trent opened his mouth, Rodney knew what he was about to say.

"No. I'm really sorry, Rodney, but I've got to fly out to Texas tonight to firm a deal," Trent explained, sounding more relieved than sorry.

"Fly to Texas? You promised me we'd get away for this trip. Spend the entire holiday together for once," Rodney said. "I've got the tickets and – "

"Look, I can't miss work for three whole weeks," Trent said.

"You knew the cruise was three weeks when we . . . discussed . . . it," Rodney reminded. The last two words were hard to get out. He could feel his lungs tightening up, his respiration becoming more of a wheeze than free breathing. He tried to calm down, but he just couldn't believe that Trent was bailing on him at the last minute like this. Or, rather, he could believe it all too well and it just confirmed a reality he'd been denying for far too long.

"You know how Dad depends on me to – "

"Depends on you?" Rodney questioned, knowing and not caring that the petty streak that Trent constantly complained about was getting the better of him once again. "It was my designs that got you this contract. If it weren't for me, that rig you were trying to design five years ago would never have reached the oil, and every project you've had since then would have fallen through. You wouldn't have that Texas deal at all if it weren't for me."

"And you'd still be breaking your back in that freezing silver mine instead of sitting pretty in a New York penthouse if it weren't for me," Trent shot back. "So let's not play that game, all right?"

Rodney felt his cheeks flame as he was once again reminded of his humble origins. He tried to breathe it out, but the air in the room suddenly seemed thin and hard to catch. His lungs tightening up as his heart raced alarmingly, Rodney fought for air. Finally, he managed to gasp out, "Call . . . Carson."

"Oh, for – will you just quit the dramatics for once and discuss this like a man?" Trent angrily demanded.

Barely able to get any air at all, Rodney rasped, "Please . . . can't . . . breathe . . . ."

"Christ," Trent cursed, finally moving towards the phone. "Sorry to bother you so late, Dr. Beckett. Rodney's having another of his fits and says he can't breathe. Dr. Beckett? Dr. Beckett?"

Less than a minute later, pounding sounded on the apartment's front door. Rodney thought Carson must have raced up the two flights of stairs rather than wait for the elevator.

Trent moved with excruciating slowness to answer the door, and a moment later Carson burst into the room, carrying his black doctor's bag. He was still dressed in the black slacks and a long sleeved white shirt that he wore under his doctor's smock when he did his rounds at Bellevue Hospital, so Rodney figured he hadn't been home too long.

"Rodney, lad," Carson said in his soft, calming voice, "just try to relax. You're going to be all right." His voice changed as he turned to Trent. "I'd appreciate it if you'd give us some privacy."

Trent released a long suffering sigh. "Sure, doc. Just let me know when he's through with the dramatics."

"You might be a mite more sympathetic," Carson snapped as he riffled through his bag. "His asthma is a serious threat."

"Yeah, right," Rodney heard Trent say as the bedroom door closed behind him.

"You don't usually let it get this bad," Carson said, finally retrieving what he was looking for. "Where's your epinephrine?"

Rodney gestured at the two huge suitcases on the bed behind him. He couldn't even remember which one he'd packed his medication in. Or perhaps it was in his travel bag. How could he have been so goddamned stupid?

Feeling humiliated as well as near death, Rodney looked down at the green wall to wall carpeting, wondering if that would be the last thing he saw as he fought for breath. He felt the needle go into his thigh, and almost as soon as the epinephrine hit his system, his lungs seemed to loosen up.

Rodney gasped in a deep, shuddering breath, and then looked up at Carson. "Th-thanks."

Carson smiled and squeezed his shoulder. "No problem. Just breathe."

When long minutes later his breathing had returned to something near normal, Carson asked, "What set it off this time?"

Rodney took another breath and returned his gaze to the rug. He had the shakes, but that was always normal after needing a shot. "Trent's got to fly to Texas on business tonight. The trip's off."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Carson's blue eyes move over the packed suitcases behind his patient on the bed. "You're not going with him to Texas, I take it."

"That isn't even remotely funny, Carson," Rodney said.

"No, it's not," Carson answered in a determined voice. "And it isn't right. You've earned this trip, Rodney. If Laura and I don't drag you to the movies or ballet, you never get out of this apartment."

Rodney's emotions were always very close to the surface at the best of times. After an asthma attack, he was frighteningly open. Rather than embarrass himself further, he squeezed his eyes shut and fought for control.

"Look, you're my friend, man. I hate seeing you so miserable. A good man like you deserves better than this," Carson said.

Rodney tried to hold on to his temper. He hated to be lied to. "We both know I'm the most difficult man on the planet, so spare me the pep talk."

Carson gave him an irritated, scowl. "Aye, you are that. You're also a fine human being under all that bluster."

"Yeah, right," Rodney dismissed, looking over his packed bags, hating the idea of having to unpack them.

"I don't need to remind you that if it weren't for you, Laura would have died that day in the hall when she miscarried," Carson said.

"I didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't have done, Carson," Rodney insisted. He hated when Carson brought their first meeting up. Gratitude was a sorry basis for a friendship. Rodney liked to pretend that Carson was his friend because he actually liked him, rather than owed him.

"Oh, is that so? You didn't just call an ambulance. You stayed with her in the hall, rode with her to the hospital, and then called the building's management company to track me down. How many other people would have done all that? And who else but you would have volunteered to sit with a total stranger for two months so I wouldn't lose my position by taking off that much time to take care of her?"

"It was no big deal. It wasn't like I wasn't home here all day anyway," Rodney said.

"Why won't you ever think good of yourself?" Carson complained. "You've got an ego bigger than the ocean when it comes to that brain of yours, but you just can't see that you're much more than that."

"Right," Rodney said tightly, agreeing to shut Carson up.

"Don't be so damn condescending," Carson said.

"That's me – condescending, arrogant, petty, bad with people – " Rodney lost his cool, giving in to the darkness that sometimes overwhelmed him when he took a good look at the life he was living.

He felt like crap. All he wanted to do was roll into a ball and wait till the adrenaline-induced jitters passed. But he couldn't just blow Carson off. Carson and Laura were the only good things that had happened to him in years.

"Stop it!" Carson demanded, his features gentling as they studied him. "You're my friend. You deserve better than this."

"How am I going to get better than this?" Rodney demanded. "Trent might be a jerk, but he's all I've got. If it weren't for this apartment he gave me – "

"Gave you?" Carson interrupted. "Rodney, it's your work that's made his company so successful. He hasn't given you anything that you couldn't have gotten on your own. We both know that."

Stifling a sigh, Rodney recited the facts of life, "I don't have a degree. The work I've been doing for the last five years, it hasn't been on the payroll. There's no record of it, anywhere. I can't put it on a resume. Trent's father believes that he's the one who's come up with all these ideas. It's like . . . I don't exist at all, except through Trent."

"That's nonsense, man," Carson gently insisted.

"Is it? If he threw me out tonight, I wouldn't even have a place to sleep. I can't work the mines again, Carson. I just can't," Rodney voiced his deepest fear. He'd been a kid when he'd done all that heavy labor. He knew he'd grown soft, that he'd never last a day doing that kind of physical work now.

"Work the mines? Are you crazy? Or has that spoiled brat of a coward got you completely brainwashed? If you decide you can't stay here, for whatever reason, there's a spare room downstairs with your name on it – for as long as you want it. Laura and I discussed this a long time ago, and whenever you're ready to get rid of that . . . of Trent, you just come straight downstairs," Carson said.

Rodney's chest filled with warmth and he thought he might actually cry at his friend's generosity. Holding Carson's gaze, he softly acknowledged, "Thanks, Carson, but I can't live off you."

"Live off me? Aren't you the one who's always telling me what a genius you are? A mind like yours won't be idle for long, Rodney," Carson insisted.

"A mind like mine is worthless without the degree to back it up. Everything I know is self-taught. I can't even get an interview in most places," Rodney said.

"We'll figure something out," Carson said.

"I just don't know," Rodney said, nearly overwhelmed by his fear. He'd known for some time that Trent was using him, on all levels, but the idea of making a change, of attempting to make some sense of the morass that had become his life was just too overwhelming to contemplate.

"Look, nothing's ever going to change while you're here," Carson said. "All you can see is this apartment and what you stand to lose. But there's a whole world out there, Rodney, wide open and waiting for you. Your bags are packed. Why don't you go on this cruise and see a bit of the world? Think about your problems in another setting. They mightn't seem so insurmountable from the outside."

"What? Go on the cruise – alone?" Rodney asked.

"Why not? Lots of bachelors go alone. Everything's already paid for. You know you'll be miserable if you pass up this opportunity," Carson said.

"Trent won't be happy," Rodney said, aware how three weeks of doing without his input would affect the company.

"Maybe it's just what Trent needs to learn to appreciate what he's got," Carson counseled.

"Do you really think my going away for three weeks could make things better?" Rodney asked, debating the idea. Trent had never had to do without him for the last five years. This trip might make it clear to Trent just how much he'd be losing if Rodney walked out on him.

And, walking out was a possibility now, if Carson had really meant his offer, which Rodney believed he did. Maybe he did need to get away and consider his options in a new environment.

"I . . . you're right. The trip is paid for. There's no point in wasting it. I doubt if we could get a refund now, even if we tried." Rodney belatedly realized just how much money was going to be lost if neither he nor Trent made the cruise.

"Exactly," Carson agreed.

"But I just had that shot. I don't feel that well . . . ." Rodney fretted, knowing he was too shaky to deal with cabs.

"You can rest when you get to the ship," Carson said. "You should go and have a good time. You never know who you're going to meet on one of those cruises."

Rodney gave a humorless smile. "I'm going to meet dozens of vacationing retired couples and twice as many single women looking for a husband. The single men there won't be looking at me, even if they don't like women."

Carson's frown made his eyebrows appear to be a single unit. "Don't talk that way about yourself. You're a fine looking man."

"You're a good friend, Carson," Rodney said. He knew what he looked like, and he knew that his pudgy body and receding hairline weren't what most men were looking for.

"Don't dismiss me like that," Carson said. "You got Trent, didn't you? I mightn't like the bugger, but I know most people consider him good looking. If you did it once, you can do it again."

"I 'got' Trent because I pulled his fat out of the fire when he was up in Canada on his first assignment. It's always been my brain that interested him, not my body," Rodney glumly acknowledged.

"You know that's not true. A man as . . . spineless as Trent wouldn't . . . chance such an unconventional relationship simply for his job's sake. There has to have been more to it, even if it's no longer true," Carson argued.

"Maybe you're right, but . . . it's been years since . . . ." Rodney looked away, not knowing how to tell Carson that Trent was the only person, man or woman, he'd ever slept with. It was embarrassing.

"You'll do fine. Now, you've got to get moving, if you're going to make the boat," Carson said. He took an envelope out of his pocket. "I want you to stop in to see the ship's doctor before you set sail. I've detailed your condition and your allergies here, as well as the prescribed treatment." Carson reached into his bag to remove a tightly bundled package. "I've prepared those medications you asked me for last week. You know how to store them."

Realizing that he was really going on a cruise, totally alone, Rodney accepted the letter and package. "Thanks again. I, er, know it's not easy to be my friend, but – "

"That's Trent talking," Carson interrupted. "You're a good man, Rodney. You just need to get out and be around people more."

"People don't like me," Rodney protested, watching as Carson picked up his suitcases.

"That's because you treat them like they're idiots," Carson calmly answered.

"Most of them are idiots," Rodney groused.

"That attitude isn't going to help you win friends or influence people," Carson chastised. "Try being polite. You are Canadian, after all. Fake it, if you have to. Here, put your coat on."

Rodney allowed Carson to help into his heavy black wool overcoat, and then picked up his travel and clothes bags while Carson handled his heavy suitcases.

"I'll drive you down to the dock," Carson said.

Carson was one of the few people living in Manhattan who actually kept a car. He needed it for late night emergency calls when the trains ran slow and there wasn't a cab to be had on the entire island for love or money.

"Thanks." Feeling better, Rodney followed Carson out into the living room, which was a strange combination of library and work lab. The walls were lined with bookshelves that Trent hated. There was a work table over by the window crowded with the gadgets Rodney was working on. He tried to keep his work isolated over there out of the way, because Trent hated the mess, but somehow his experiments always seemed to overflow onto the coffee table and end tables, and sometimes into the kitchen.

Rodney had nearly forgotten that Trent was still there. He watched that handsome face darken as Trent took in his coat and bags.

"What's going on?" Trent demanded.

"I've got a vacation booked. Sorry you can't make it," Rodney said, holding that angry brown gaze, his own anger growing.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. They were both supposed to be going on this cruise.

"You're kidding, right?" Trent asked.

"No. I'm dead serious. I planned this trip, and I'm taking it," Rodney insisted.

"But . . . it's three whole weeks . . . ." Trent faltered. It was very clear from the shock in his face that he'd never even considered the possibility that Rodney might go on the cruise alone. Rodney was abruptly very pleased that Carson had talked him into it.

"Yes, it is," Rodney answered, enjoying the look on Trent's face.

"What am I supposed to do with these designs till then?" Trent whined, waving a familiar large folder around.

"I'm sure you'll think of something. Your father does depend on you so," Rodney couldn't resist rubbing it in.

"You can't do this!" Trent yelled.

To Rodney's surprise, he wasn't even angry at Trent's outburst. Instead, he met those furious brown eyes, gave his widest smile and said, "Watch me."

Then, without further delay, he turned on his heel and walked out the front door, Carson right behind him.

By the time they were in the cool, green-walled elevator, Rodney was shaking again as the scope of what he was about to do set in. He'd never been anywhere other than Myra Falls, B.C., and Manhattan. The thought of going off to Europe totally alone was more than a little frightening.

"I'm right proud of you, Rodney," Carson said, giving his arm a squeeze.

"I don't know that I can do this," Rodney admitted, barely holding back the panic as the elevator made its steady way down to street level. "I wish you and Laura were coming."

"Me, too, but it's too late for making arrangements now, even if I could get the time off. We'll plan something for next summer, all right?"

"Really?" Rodney asked, stunned that Carson would actually want to go on vacation with him.

"Really," Carson said. "You can scout out all the good places on this trip."

"I, ah . . . I'm . . . ." Rodney didn't know how to say he was scared.

To his eternal relief, Carson seemed to read it in his eyes. "You'll do fine. Send us a post card from every port and have a glass or two of champagne for Laura and me." Carson grinned.

"Pink champagne, in her honor," Rodney promised. His father's drinking had put the fear of alcohol into him at an early age. He'd only ever had a sip or two of the pink champagne that Laura loved once a year at the Becketts' New Year's Parties and it always went directly to his head.

"That's the spirit," Carson encouraged as the elevator doors opened onto the white marble lobby.

Outside the building's fancy glass doors, Rodney could see it had started sleeting again. Maybe a visit to the warm Mediterranean was just what he needed, Rodney thought as he followed Carson to the multi-level car park down the block where Carson parked his Chevy.

*~*~*

The passage across the Atlantic was a nightmare of winter storms and tossing waves. The sea looked grey and angry the few times Rodney ventured out for food or more sea-sickness pills. He spent most of the crossing holed up in his cabin, dopey from the medication.

Fortunately, the first class accommodations were roomy and more than comfortable. He'd known his claustrophobia would never have survived a regular cabin and had sprung for first class. His quarters had a sitting room with a blue couch and two green easy chairs, plus a lush bedroom with an enormous queen-sized bed.

But it was lonely. Although he spent most of his days alone in the apartment, he was always busy on some project or another, and Laura was always just two floors down. He wasn't used to being inactive, and the memory of how he'd left things with Trent was playing havoc with his emotions. One minute he was proud of himself for finally making a stand, the next, he was scared out of his mind at the idea of losing everything he knew.

To stave off the feeling of isolation, Rodney took out one of the two framed photos he'd brought with him and placed it on the table in the living room, where he spent most of those first few days napping, reading, and trying not to throw up. Laura and Carson's happy grins helped ease the emptiness somehow.

He left the only picture he had of Trent and him in his suitcase.

On the fourth day, a knock on his cabin door interrupted another sea-sickness-pill-induced nap. Rodney blinked bleary-eyed at the handsome young blond man in ship's uniform standing at his door.

"Mr. McKay?" the steward questioned.

"Yes?"

"Telegram." The steward handed him an envelope and beat a hasty retreat.

Rodney stared at the white envelope in his hands, almost afraid to open it. He'd never received a telegram before, but he knew they usually contained bad news. Had something happened to Laura . . . or Carson?

Taking a deep breath, Rodney tore the envelope open and hastily read the neatly typed missive.

 

Rodney. STOP
I know I acted like a real jerk before you left. STOP
I hope we can talk when you get back. STOP
Yours, STOP
Trent STOP

That was the closest Trent had ever come to an apology, Rodney realized as he reread the unexpected communication. He stared at the closing sentiment. Yours. When had Trent ever really been his?

He'd taken this trip hoping to shake Trent up, clearly that had worked. Rodney just wished he could believe that it was he whom Trent missed, and not the help he gave him with his work. But, although he was delusional at times, he'd never been stupid. Rodney knew that Trent would be frantic by now at the thought of having to do all that work without his help.

Wondering what he was going to do/say when he got back to New York, Rodney went into his bedroom, opened his suitcase, and pulled out the other framed photo. He took it back into the living room with him and set it down on the coffee table beside Laura and Carson's picture, not sure why he was doing it.

Even with Trent's apology telegram, he was still angry and didn't really want to display the photo, but he hoped that looking at it might give him some ideas as to how to handle this situation. Because the only thing that was clear to him was that he couldn't go on the way he was living. It really felt like Trent and him were over.

Staring at the two very similar pictures, he was immediately struck by the disparity between them. Laura and Carson were sitting on their couch in the first photo. Carson had his arm around Laura's slender shoulders, and she was leaning against his side, nearly sitting on top of him, her long blonde hair clinging to the shoulder of Carson's blue shirt. Both were grinning madly and almost glowing. Whereas the one of Trent and him . . . it had been taken last year during the half hour Trent had managed to stop by for Laura ad Carson's New Year's Party. Trent and he were sitting on exactly the same couch as in Laura and Carson's picture. Only, there was nearly a foot of space between their bodies. They were both smiling in the photo, but Trent's smile looked forced. Rodney had never noticed until this minute just how completely uncomfortable Trent appeared.

How was he ever going to change that, Rodney wondered. No matter how hard he tried, he was never going to be able to make Trent comfortable with being in a sexual relationship with a man. Five years worth of trying had proved that. That distance and discomfort were always going to be there between them. Rodney didn't think he could live with it anymore. And he'd had it with being Trent's dirty little secret. Trent's refusal to take this trip with him was the last straw.

Which, he supposed, answered his question as to what he was going to do when he got back to New York. No more blinders, no more settling . . . no more Trent.

It was time to start living again.

His heart beating wildly at the enormity of the decision he'd just made, Rodney pulled his wallet out of his travel bag, slipped into his black dinner jacket, reached out for the picture of Trent and him, tucked it under his arm, and left his cabin.

The weather had calmed nearly the second they had reached the Riviera. They were currently docked at San Remo, taking on passengers. They'd been given a four hour stopover, but Rodney hadn't really felt up to going ashore yet. He'd promised himself that he'd go to at least one casino in Monte Carlo, if only to escape Laura's censure if he failed to bring her back something from such an exotic port, but now he was determined to go for himself. No more settling, no more hiding from life.

Rodney walked out into the open air deck for the first time in days. The sun was shining warm as June back home. He stopped beside the rail, looked down at that gorgeous blue water, took a deep breath, and tossed the picture of Trent and him overboard. He watched the photo bounce off the black hull of the ship once. The glass shattered and showered down in a rainbow of reflected light. The glass shards and frame hit the water.

The glass sank immediately, but Rodney watched the frame bob along on the surface for a couple of minutes before the cardboard became waterlogged enough to sink. He kept his eyes on the retreating frame until it disappeared from sight.

When it was totally gone, he straightened up. He and Trent were done, over, finito.

He remembered reading in one of the voodoo books in what passed for the science called anthropology about how man needed rituals to mark the momentous stages of his life. He'd thought the concept absurd at the time, but tossing the picture overboard like that did feel like a ritualistic closing of some kind. It really felt over now, in a way it hadn't when he'd read Trent's telegram before.

Feeling a strange calm settle over him, Rodney walked around the deck, exploring the ship for the first time in five days. He couldn't help but admire how blue the waters were here. Turquoise and cerulean, the sea shimmered under a brilliant sun. It looked unreal.

When he reached the landward side of the ship, he thought that the inviting beaches and picturesque white houses of San Remo were like something from a storybook. Briefly, Rodney regretted not going ashore, but it was nice to walk around the for once empty deck. So many people had passed by his quarter's porthole during the last few days that he'd begun to feel as though he were in a Times Square automat instead of on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. But the deck was empty now and he was grateful for the solitude.

Rodney paused to gaze over the railing at an especially beautiful vista of beach and crashing waves. His foot kicked something on the normally pristine deck as he turned. Looking down, he saw an expensive looking, gold-trimmed wallet lying on the grey deck.

Picking it up, he flipped it open. There was a gold-lettered inscription in French tooled into the soft leather of the inner flap, a wad of colorful paper money so thick the wallet could barely close, and what looked to be a French driver's license facing it. There was no picture on the license, but the name John Sheppard would leave few in doubt as to whom the wallet belonged to.

Was Sheppard on board? Could it possibly be the same John Sheppard?

Rodney remembered the newsflash about the man's upcoming marriage to the American heiress, but he hadn't realized that Sheppard would be crossing the Atlantic at the same time he would. Rodney got a thrill just thinking about being on the same ship with the popular celebrity. He knew Laura would be totally envious of his getting to see the handsome playboy in the flesh.

But there was no way Rodney was going to track the celebrity down and be classed in the same category as the gaggle of moonstruck women he'd seen drooling over Sheppard's picture on the front of the newspaper in the gift shop the other morning when he'd gone down to get Laura a souvenir of the ship. No, he'd just drop the wallet off at the purser's office and let the crew worry about returning it.

Rodney had gone about a dozen steps when he was stopped by a melodic, lazy sounding voice speaking to him from the open window of the inner deck. "I beg your pardon; I think you have my wallet."

The accent was American, a lazy drawl that could have been Texan.

Rodney turned towards the voice, and felt his knees almost go weak as he met John Sheppard's famous hazel eyes. Sheppard's pictures hadn't done him justice, Rodney dazedly acknowledged. The man was unnaturally handsome, but not in the boring way most film stars were good-looking. His face was slender, almost quirky, his eyes as changeable as the sea a few yards away from them. And his ears . . . they were almost pointed.

Sheppard's smile was something a man could lose himself in for days or weeks. Rodney stared at Sheppard's trademark, unfashionably rumpled hair, thinking that the man looked like he'd just rolled out of bed after a night of hot sex – which he no doubt had, were his reputation anything to go by. Presented with the man in the flesh, Rodney had no reason to doubt his legendary allure.

Sheppard's black suit and bow tie were fighting a losing battle with the sensually dissolute impression the hair and three day old beard stubble inspired. Not many men could pull off that scruffy look while wearing such formal clothes, but Sheppard wore the conflicting styles well.

Abruptly, Rodney understood why the press was so enamored of Sheppard, no matter what sexual hijinx this man was caught in. He doubted there was a human on the planet who could resist that charming smile. Sheppard almost seemed to exude a raw sexual energy, a charisma that made a person just ache to touch the man. Rodney could feel it from ten feet away.

Not wanting to be caught gaping at the man like the scores of admirers that bought papers with Sheppard's picture on it, Rodney affected his most unimpressed air and said, "I must confess, I'm an international pick pocket."

Sheppard blinked at him. The polite smile changed to a grin of blinding proportion. It nearly melted Rodney's brain.

"I don't believe that," Sheppard said with a chuckle.

"You don't?" Rodney asked, his resolve to remain un-bewitched by Sheppard's charm slipping away as quickly as his ability to speak.

"No."

That grin ought to be outlawed. It was utterly indecent.

Rodney told himself he wasn't one of those brainless morons who were bowled over by a pretty face, even if that were exactly how he was feeling at the moment. Something in him was unwilling to give Sheppard the satisfaction of making another conquest with only a smile and his come-hither eyes. Even after only their brief interaction, he could see Sheppard's ego was as inflated as his reputation.

Taking a deep breath and controlling his face, Rodney said, "Actually, I was just bringing it to the purser's office." Realizing that handing the wallet over without further question would only feed that not insignificant ego, Rodney rallied with a stubborn, "Hey, wait a minute. How do I know this is your wallet?"

Sheppard's eyes widened, as if he'd genuinely impressed the man. "You mean aside from the fact that my identification is in it? Well, there's a gold lettered inscription on the inside."

Pretending not to have already looked, Rodney opened the wallet and stared at the stylish letters.

"To Johnnie Sheppard." Rodney's sarcasm getting the better of him, especially in light of the fact that this Sheppard character seemed to assume that the world would know him, he found himself teasing in a mock-impressed tone, "Oh, don't tell me that you're the famous . . . I have read so much about you in Life and Look and – "

"Possibly Good Housekeeping?" Sheppard cracked with a challenging tilt of his eyebrow. "Now may I have my wallet back?"

"No, no," Rodney said, his right hand rising in a whoa gesture. "Just a moment." He read the inscription. He was Canadian. He was supposed to know French as well as English, but he'd always been more interested in his science classes in school than language. Whistling at the words he could translate, he said, "Whew, this is awful intimate. I know just enough French to be embarrassed. Could you refine it a little and tell me in effect what it says?" Rodney offered his own challenge.

Sheppard remained unflustered. Squarely meeting his eyes, Sheppard said, "Well, it says 'Thank you for three unforgettable nights aboard La Gabriella' – her yacht."

Her yacht, right. Snapping the wallet closed, Rodney couldn't come up with another conversational foray and admitted, "Guess that really is you.," as he handed the wallet over. Unlike most men having a lost wallet returned to them, Sheppard did not check its contents.

Sheppard accepted it with a thankful nod, and then asked, "Tell me, you wouldn't by any chance have written the song I'll Never Smile Again, would you?"

Although he hadn't wanted to appear unfriendly, Rodney was pleased that he hadn't been caught simpering over the man.

Sheppard's grin just begged that Rodney give into his charm and succumb like every other poor soul faced with it probably did. For all that he wanted to return that smile, he knew he'd be just another of Sheppard's countless conquests, and his pride simply wouldn't allow that to happen, even on so meaningless a topic as smiling. So, Rodney kept his face as schooled as possible and answered, "No, but I'm thinking of writing one called Moon Over La Gabriella. Do you think it will ever be as popular as night baseball?" and started to walk away. After a few steps, he walked back, frowned, and slowly shook his head no. Then he commenced walking again.

He could feel Sheppard's gaze on his back until he turned up a stairwell to the upper deck.

*~*~*

His wallet safely in hand, John Sheppard watched the stranger walk away. Flipping it open, he was amazed to find his cash still there. Not that he'd thought the man who'd returned it would have taken the cash, but he knew that pickpockets would often remove all money before dumping an incriminating wallet. The guy could have found it empty. He hadn't even gotten the man's name – or properly thanked him. Not that his good Samaritan had seemed to be expecting any thanks.

John had seen from the start that the man had known who he was, but instead of the usual embarrassing fawning or judgmental recriminations on his lifestyle, the guy had been sarcastic as hell, almost disdainful. It was a refreshing change. In fact, the entire conversation had been different, flirtatious in a weird, prickly manner, without being obvious or crude.

Or maybe not so flirtatious. He knew he had a tendency to think with his hormones, and nothing turned him on faster than a clever conversation. There'd been an intriguing intelligence there that John couldn't help but respond to. Though he liked most people, he'd learned a long time ago that not many of them thought for themselves. Most people liked what the magazines told them they should like, and depending on which magazines they read, they either liked or hated him on sight. It was rare to meet anybody who didn't instantly fall for him or want to punch his lights out, simply on the grounds of his press. He'd thought he'd seen interest in the snarky man's crystal blue eyes, but the guy had seemed resolved to remain unimpressed with him.

Well, that was neither here nor there, John told himself. It wasn't like anything would ever have come of it, if the interest had been there at all. Despite those captivating eyes, the guy had definitely not been his type. Though, after the chewing out the lovely Gabriella had just given him on the ship's phone, John was beginning to wish he had less shallow tastes in bed partners. Not that he didn't have it coming. He'd known he shouldn't have given in to her overtures, not with his engagement to Elizabeth having just been announced, but he had a weakness for beautiful, exotic women, and Gabriella was every man's dream. Or had been for the first two days. It was amazing how quickly his beauties fell from their pedestals.

Dismissing the sarcastic stranger from his mind, John headed for the bar to wash the bad taste Gabriella had left out of his mouth.

The bar was like everything else on the cruise ship and, well, like everything in his life lately, expensive and overstated. The padded leather seat stools were as soft and comfortable as an easy chair. The highly polished wood on the bar was mahogany. The mirror on the wall was gold-framed. Everything sparkled with reflected rainbows under the chandelier's light.

The three beauties in pink, blue, and yellow cocktail dresses respectively were as showy as the bar at which they were seated. But they twittered like a flock of mating sparrows when John walked in and turned come hither smiles his way, so John found himself gravitating in their direction, despite his lack of actual interest.

A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. All a man could ask for. The three were quite stunning, really, if a little on the insipid side, he quickly recognized as the shapely blonde gushed, "Oh, my God. I can't believe I'm actually sitting here talking to Johnnie Sheppard!"

Not once, ever, had anyone ever asked him if he liked to be called Johnnie. The press had tagged that ridiculous nickname on him and strangers automatically used it to increase their sense of intimacy. Elizabeth was the only woman who'd ever been bright enough to call him by the name he offered when first introduced.

At their companion's stellar comment, the other two women gave giggles that would have been immature at a high school prom. Stifling his sigh, John forced a smile. These three hadn't even made it onto the pedestals before crashing, but he was bored, and they were pretty, and sometimes that was enough to stave off the dissatisfaction that was quietly eating away at his heart.

As so often happened with him, time sped by as he laughed and joked with the women. The dinner bell interrupted their merriment, and they rose as a group to head for the dining room.

John hadn't planned on eating with the three, but there was no polite way to detach himself at this point, and he did so hate to be rude.

"So, you're from Columbus?" John asked the redhead in the blue dress.

The blonde in pink giggled, "No, Mary's from Columbus." Mary apparently being the brunette in the yellow chiffon, were the look the blonde threw that way any indication. "Sue's from Galveston." Sue being the redhead in blue whom he'd addressed. "And I'm from St. Louis. We all went to school together."

John really wished Mary or Sue would mention the blonde's name, because he sure as hell couldn't remember it. Mary, Sue, and Ellen? Helen? Ellie? Nellie?

Entering the noisy, crowded vestibule outside the dining room, John opened the French doors, gesturing his lovely dining companions through ahead of him. Seeing a grey haired couple right behind them, he politely held the door open. The older lady was plump and had a pleasant smile. The man with her was tall, dignified, and dressed in minister's garb.

The smile and all warmth left the minister's friendly face as his brown eyes widened in recognition as they settled on John. "I can't believe they let degenerates like you dine with decent folk. This is a disgrace. You should be ashamed to show your face in public, you sodomizer."

Absolute silence fell in the noisy hall.

John was intensely aware of every eye focusing upon him and felt, more than saw, his three companions shrinking back in horror from the imminent scene. He'd just opened his mouth to reply to the old man's comment when a grating, vaguely familiar voice filled the room at a sound level that any stage actor would have been proud of.

"Why is it that ignorance and loudness go hand in hand? Have you even read the book your beliefs are purportedly based on? Or did you just miss the part where it said that a man should love his brother? As I recall, no mention was made of precisely how and how not a man should do that."

Stunned that anyone would speak in his defense in such a humiliating situation, John turned to see the slightly pudgy man who'd returned his wallet to him glowering at the minister like the minister were a child molester or something equally foul.

"You can't seriously be defending this . . . this abominator?" the minister demanded.

"As far as I can see, he's done nothing to defend, except show you the courtesy of holding the door open for you – which in polite society is usually met with a thank you instead of an insult," his good samaritan sneered.

John heard several people in the growing dinner crowd laugh in response to his defender's words. He knew the guy was lucky. The crowd here was full of vacationing singles, out to score and have fun. Most of them didn't care about anything but their own amusement, and John's defender had turned this embarrassing scene into an entertaining spectacle. In any other situation, the minister would have had dozens of like-minded people backing him up.

"How dare you speak to me like that!" the minister snarled, his round face turning red.

"And how dare you ruin people's dinners with this ugliness. Save it for your parishioners. If I'm not mistaken, that book sticking out of your pocket also said something about only he who is without sin casting the first stone. You might want to read it someday. It might help in your profession." More laughter met the angry man's sarcastic words. "Now, I mightn't know my catechism very well, but I sure as hell can recognize that you're not fit to be throwing that first stone, so why don't you just stop talking and let the rest of us enjoy our dinners?"

The minister looked as though he might have an apoplectic fit. His wife grabbed onto his arm and said in a strangled sounding voice, "Come on, James. Let's get out of here."

The pair shoved past John and through the crowd behind him, making a hasty, red-faced retreat. As soon as the minister was gone, normal conversation resumed in the corridor and John felt most of the gazes leave him.

His good Samaritan started to walk by him as though nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred. What kind of person bawled out absolute strangers like that and then just toddled on as though nothing unusual had happened?

Recalling the guy's earlier, prickly attitude, John had a feeling that the stranger was used to conflict.

"Hey," John said, touching the man's arm as he walked past. Realizing they were blocking the door, John quickly said, "Could I talk to you for a minute?" and stepped to the side of the doors so that the waiting diners could enter.

Indecision flickered over that surprisingly open face for a second before the man seemed to school his features as he joined John beside the dining room doors. "Ah, sure."

"Thank you for what you said," John offered, off balance because he wasn't accustomed to anyone defending him when his bohemian lifestyle came under attack. Usually, even people who fancied him disappeared when he came under public censure, like his three lovely dinner companions who were now nowhere to be seen. "You didn't have to do that."

Those penetrating blue eyes met his squarely. John liked that they didn't do the nervous shifting that most people's did in his presence.

A faint blush touched the guy's cheeks, as if he were embarrassed by John's words. "Yes, I did. It would have been damned hypocritical of me not to."

"What?" John asked, and then realized what the guy was telling him. "Oh. You mean you're . . . ?"

John had to admire how the stranger didn't even glance around to see if their conversation were being overheard before answering, "Yes. So you have nothing to thank me for, okay? Morons like that are a menace to everybody."

John reached out and put a halting hand on his arm as the man started to move away. "I, ah, never asked you your name before."

"Rodney. Rodney McKay," McKay answered, offering his hand with a certain awkward air.

His shake was firm, though, if a little clammy. John found himself giving a genuine smile as he said, "Well, Rodney McKay, I appear to be in your debt again today." Before the protest in those expressive eyes was given voice, John hurried on with, "Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me?"

That visibly threw McKay. "What – me?"

Charmed to see the prickly man so flustered, John nodded. "Yes, you."

"But I thought you were with – " McKay's blue eyes scanned the immediate area, no doubt searching for the three beauties who'd vanished at the minister's first words.

"I appear to be unexpectedly at loose ends," John answered, holding that questioning gaze as it returned to his face. He knew that not many people, men especially, would want to be seen dining alone with him immediately following that humiliating scene, but McKay didn't strike him as being like most of the people he knew.

After a moment's thought, McKay nodded. "Okay. I, ah, I'd like that."

John was surprised by McKay's sudden nervousness. On the deck when he'd returned his wallet, McKay had been brash and almost offensive. The sarcastic man who'd jumped to his defense a few minutes ago had looked like he'd never known a moment's self doubt. But now McKay appeared almost bashful. John found himself intrigued by the sudden turnabout.

Side by side, they entered the dining room.

The accommodations were so sumptuous that it was difficult to believe that they were on a ship instead of at a Five Star restaurant in Paris or New York. John could tell by the way McKay's wide gaze was taking in his surroundings that he wasn't accustomed to this level of opulence. From the way the man moved, kept tugging at his collar, and fussing with his tie, it was clear McKay wasn't used to dressing for dinner, either. Although, John had to admit that the black suit looked good on McKay

"Is this your first time in the dining room?" John asked as the maitre d' led them to a table for two against the port wall.

McKay gave him a self-deprecating, crooked grin. "That obvious, huh?"

"A little," John said, taking a seat.

"It's my first cruise," McKay said, nodding his thanks as he accepted a menu from the balding maitre d'. "I, um, was seasick for the entire passage over. This is the first day I've felt well enough to eat in the dining room. Or eat at all. God, I'm starving."

The maitre d' gave them a polite smile and said, "Alex will be over to take your drinks order shortly. Bon appetite," before leaving.

"You're traveling alone?" John asked. He wasn't surprised by the seasickness comment. McKay didn't really look like the rough and ready type.

A shadow crossed McKay's incredibly open face. "Yes."

"But not by choice?" John questioned, unable to believe how much he was able to read in McKay's reactions. He'd rarely met anyone who was this open with their emotions.

"He couldn't tear himself away from his work," McKay offered, his bitterness palpable.

McKay said the word he like it was customary for a man to have a male paramour, like he wasn't the least bit ashamed or self-conscious about it.

Impressed by McKay's upfront attitude, John smiled and said, "His loss."

Those crystal blue eyes flashed questioningly to his face. "Enough about me. What about you?"

John grinned. "There's not much to tell. My life's an open book."

Too open, for his tastes.

"Um, I, er, guess congratulations are in order," McKay said, quickly clarifying at his no doubt blank stare, "On your upcoming marriage."

"Oh, yeah. My marriage. Right," John said. "Thanks."

"You are getting married to that heiress, aren't you?" McKay checked, looking understandably confused.

"We haven't set a date yet, but yes," John said. Something in him wanted to explain to McKay that it was simply an arrangement of mutual convenience, but he didn't know him that well. Not that he knew anyone that well.

"Well, that's great then. The best of luck," McKay said.

John gave another quiet thanks, and looked down at his open menu. He knew he was supposed to be happy. Engaged people were supposed to be ecstatic, but he couldn't even fake it anymore. When Elizabeth and he had discussed the possibility, it had seemed like the perfect solution to both their problems. Elizabeth would get access to her trust fund once she married a man with the required military family background. John mightn't have much, but his father, the American Air Force general, and his grandfather, the British sea captain, did give his family a military background. Marrying Elizabeth would solve all of his bothersome financial problems. Anyone in his shoes would be thrilled, but the closer he got to having to go through with the marriage, the less tempting Elizabeth's 600 million was. He might be jaded beyond all hope of redemption, but there was something in him that still believed that marriage should mean something more than the means to an end.

Their waiter, the tempting blue-eyed, blond, Alex, came to take their drink orders and the next ten minutes passed in a discussion of the menu. McKay followed John's lead, ordering the Beef Wellington, and silence fell between them once their waiter left them alone the second time.

"So, um, what do you do for a living?" John questioned, trying to breach the suddenly heavy silence that seemed to accentuate the fact that they didn't know each other at all.

That wasn't usually a hard question for most people to answer, but McKay looked like he had to think about the answer.

Finally, McKay said, "I do an engineer's work."

"But you're not an engineer?" John asked, hearing the odd note in McKay's voice.

"Not officially, no. I'm, er, self-taught."

"In engineering?" John gawked.

"Yeah. I'm, well, I'm unnaturally smart. I learn things . . . very quickly. Most people would probably call me a genius," McKay said, an unmistakable note of bragging in his voice.

"There aren't too many geniuses in the social circles I move in," John remarked, not entirely sure he believed McKay.

"How surprising." McKay's answer dripped sarcasm.

"Are you always this charming or do I bring out your good side?" John asked, softening the words with a smile.

As on the deck earlier, McKay didn't respond to his effort to charm him. He just shrugged his broad shoulders and said, "People skills aren't most geniuses' forte."

"So what is your forte, then?" John asked, tickled by the prickly personality. "Now that you've aced the lack of people skills' merit badge."

Humor sparked in those blue eyes, but then it died as McKay answered. "That's sort of what I'm trying to figure out on this trip."

"Oh? How's that?" John was surprised that he really wanted to know. Generally, small talk bored him. He was good at it, but there was a certain predictability to most of the conversations he had. So far, there hadn't been a single predictable thing in McKay's responses.

"I guess I'm in something of a rut," McKay said after a moment's thought.

"In your job or with the workaholic?" John asked.

McKay snorted. "They're one and the same."

"Huh?" John said.

"I don't know how he ever got through college. He's got the engineering degree, but no real skill or aptitude for it. I've got the skill, but no degree. He brings his projects to me, and I figure them out," Rodney said, seeming uncomfortable.

John was shocked that McKay would admit something like that. "So you do the work and he gets the credit?"

"Pretty much."

John could see how much the situation bothered McKay. The guy was embarrassingly transparent. The pain in McKay's eyes was unmistakable. "So what do you get out of the deal?"

"Initially, a ticket out of a mining town and a Fifth Avenue penthouse with a breathtaking view of the East River," McKay answered. "And him."

"A mining town?" John questioned. He hadn't expected that at all. McKay was so . . . prissy and intellectually superior that he just couldn't imagine the guy coming from that kind of background.

"You really don't want to hear about that, do you?" McKay asked, looking uncertain. "It reads like a second rate Hollywood melodrama."

"I love the cinema," John said. "Go on, tell me about the mining town. Were you born there?"

McKay nodded. "Myra Falls, British Columbia. They'd have to steal a horse for it to be a one horse town."

John chuckled. "You're Canadian, then?"

"Couldn't you tell by how polite I am?" McKay cracked. John liked how McKay could joke about shortcomings that might otherwise have been unbearable.

"Canada is lovely. I've been to Banff. It's beautiful there."

"Skiing?" McKay guessed. At his nod, McKay mumbled, "Figures."

"So was your father a miner?" John asked, trying to figure McKay out. Anyone else, he would have thought this a tall story, but McKay was just so damn open about everything that he couldn't picture the guy lying about this. And to what purpose? It wasn't as if this kind of background would impress most of the people in John's circle.

"No, he was a prospector, if you'd believe it, and an alcoholic. He drank away every penny he ever earned. He and my mother fought all the time. He . . . he left us when I was seven," McKay said.

John didn't even have to look for the pain this time. It was right there in McKay's voice. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you about this."

"No, it's okay. It's . . . no big deal," McKay said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself.

"It's painful and . . . personal. I shouldn't have asked," John repeated. He normally didn't commit social gaffes of this nature, but, then, he normally wasn't interacting with anyone with this kind of cutting honesty. The people he knew loved glitter and lived for their illusions of grandeur. They would have died to a man before admitting to an alcoholic father, let alone to being abandoned by him.

"Life is painful," McKay countered. "You learn to work around it."

"It doesn't have to be painful," John said.

"Maybe not for someone like you," McKay said.

"Someone like me?" John repeated, anger rushing through him.

"You're famous," McKay said. "People fall all over themselves trying to meet you. Are you going to even try to tell me that you aren't wined and dined everywhere you go?"

He supposed McKay had a point. But there was another side to it. Holding that challenging gaze, John softly replied, "Yeah, I'm wined and dined – in the places they don't spit in my face. It's not all wine and roses, McKay. My reputation precedes me, and . . . people make judgments without even speaking to me, without knowing a thing about me. You're doing it right now."

McKay winced. "Sorry. I was trying not to be influenced by anything I'd read about you, but . . . it's hard." Those blue eyes narrowed. "It isn't like you're exactly forthcoming, either. I asked you about yourself, and all you'd tell me was that you were an open book. Well, the books I've read that mentioned you led me to certain conclusions. Unless you're going to contradict those conclusions with facts, it's rather unfair of you to take offense at them."

John blinked to hide his surprise. He couldn't remember the last time someone he was socializing with had taken him to task for his habit of evading personal questions. Even Elizabeth, who knew him better than most, let him get away with it.

"Oh, for . . . hasn't anyone ever complained about it before or are they all bowled over by that air of mystery?" McKay demanded in an irritated tone that shouldn't have been endearing, but somehow was.

"My grandmother, actually, but not for a number of years," John replied, finding his emotional footing again.

"So," McKay continued in that pissy voice. "Let's try this again. You asked me about where I was born. It's your turn now. What about you?"

John froze. "I don't know you that well."

"Know me that well? I just asked you a simple question. What do you think I'm going to do? Run to the papers with the answer?" McKay demanded.

This was not at all how John had anticipated their dinner as going. But he met that annoyed gaze and quietly answered, "You could."

"And I could run to the papers and tell them we had a mad, torrid affair. Enough people have seen us together to support the claim." McKay pointed out. "What's to stop me from doing that?"

"It's happened before," John said, his whole body tightening in dread as he remembered some of those past disasters. Not all of his public indiscretions were true indiscretions. Some – granted, not many, but some – had been created from whole cloth.

McKay met and held his gaze. "Not with me. If you can't trust me enough to tell me something as simple as where the hell you were born, then I don't want to have dinner with you or anything else to do with you."

Stunned, John watched McKay jump to his feet. The people at the nearest two tables were beginning to look their way; their attention no doubt attracted by McKay's angry tone.

John grabbed McKay's arm. "Look, I'm sorry. Okay? Just . . . sit down. Please?"

After a minute of glaring that felt more like a century, McKay settled back into his seat.

"I'm not used to people demanding honesty from me," John finally found the nerve to admit. McKay's eyes were still hard and angry, but he appeared more hurt or insulted than anything. "And, I suppose I'm not accustomed to being around people I can trust."

"That's obvious," McKay said.

"You're not making this easy," John complained.

"I aced the lack of people skills' merit badge, remember?" McKay joked.

To John's astonishment, he found himself laughing, not chuckling like he normally did, but all out laughing. McKay was just so outrageously rude that the rebel inside John couldn't help but be amused by the man.

Normally, on the rare occasions someone did attempt to force his confidence, John was out the door before they could finish voicing their first question. But, strangely enough, even though he didn't particularly care to spill his guts, he didn't want to run from McKay, either. The guy had returned his wallet, contents totally intact, and defended him from public ridicule. McKay had more than shown himself to be trustworthy.

Taking a deep, John softly asked, "What did you want to know?"

"How about where you were born for starters?" McKay asked, looking like he were picking the most innocuous question he could think of. To McKay's credit, there wasn't the vaguest hint of gloating in his attitude

There was a momentary pause as their waiter brought the appetizers, but once the handsome young man had cleared out, John said, "I was born in an American military hospital in France. My father was a major in the Air Force back then. He's a general now."

"I didn't know that," McKay said.

"Few do. Let's just say, my father has chosen to distance himself from my . . . notoriety," John wondered if his own voice were revealing half as much as McKay's had when he'd spoken of his father. "We haven't spoken in more than a decade."

"And your mother?" McKay asked. "Are you still on speaking terms with her?"

To John's surprise, McKay actually seemed . . . concerned, not just curious.

Genuine regard was another thing John wasn't accustomed to. Elizabeth had always been the only one in his circle who had given a damn about him. He was used to playing games, used to the slick social tangos that got him into strangers' beds. This upfront approach was anathema to his lifestyle. He wasn't even sure why he was telling McKay these things or why he'd stopped the man from leaving the table.

McKay's gaze rested politely on him, waiting for an answer, but John couldn't miss how McKay's eyes kept slipping down to the food the waiter had left, before returning guiltily to his face.

He watched in amusement as McKay eventually attacked the shrimp plate with all the finesse of a starving wolf.

Buying for time, John reached out and took a shrimp from the cocktail plate before him, dipped it in sauce, and slowly chewed it as he contemplated how he should answer that one. His mother . . . .

After swallowing, he met McKay's eyes and said, "She hated being left on military bases while my father was overseas. She . . . overdosed on tranquillizers when I was ten. Her parents raised me."

"Oh. I . . . I'm sorry. I guess that's something I shouldn't have asked about, huh?" McKay appeared as uncomfortable as John had felt at his own earlier gaffe.

"There's a reason I don't like to talk about these things," John said, but he said it mildly, because he could see that McKay hadn't seen that coming. "What about your mother? Are you still close?"

John couldn't help but wonder how McKay's mother felt about his being a homosexual. He couldn't picture this pushy man hiding something like that.

McKay gave him what might have been a smile or a grimace. It was hard to tell. "She and my little sister, um, died of influenza when I was sixteen. I had to quit school to support myself after that. That's how I ended up working in the silver mine. It was the only employment in town." At John's no doubt shocked reaction, McKay reminded, "I, er, told you it was a Hollywood melodrama."

"God," John said, totally appalled, "maybe we should just quit the personal questions and order a bottle of the hard stuff?"

McKay gave a small smile. "That's the worst of it on my end. You?"

"How could I possibly top that?" John asked without thinking. Realizing his utter lack of tact, he stared at McKay in horror, but the man was convulsed with laughter around another mouthful of shrimp, looking like he was doing his best to keep from spitting the food back onto the tablecloth.

When McKay calmed, John softly commented, "You don't seem like the miner type."

"No, I, er, pretty much sucked at it," McKay admitted. "Hard physical labor and super intelligence don't mix well."

"So, how'd you go from the salt mine – "

"Silver mine," McKay corrected, grinning.

"The silver mine to a Manhattan penthouse?" John finished.

"The workaholic. He was up in B.C. on his first job, totally out of his depth and about to lose a three million dollar contract because of his incompetence. He was sitting in the cafeteria, working on some blueprints, but he had the angles all wrong. Even from four feet away, I could see that his math was off, too. I corrected him, and, well, one thing led to another," McKay said with a shrug. "Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to New York."

"How long ago was that?" John was curious. Although he knew a lot of men who preferred men, not many of them stayed together.

"Five years," McKay answered.

"You've been together ever since?" John asked, shocked. His experiences with other men were limited to one night stands and weekend affairs. He couldn't imagine being with the same guy for five years.

"Yes," McKay said.

"There were never any mistakes, any . . . indiscretions?" John challenged, unable to believe it.

McKay shifted, visibly uncomfortable with the question. His cheeks turning pink, he softly replied, "Not on my part."

"He . . . ?" Realizing how embarrassing the question he was about to ask would be, he cut it off. John had never met the workaholic and already considered him a jerk.

McKay answered the unvoiced question anyway, with the relentless honesty he'd exhibited throughout their conversation. It was almost like McKay really had no concept of what was and wasn't appropriate in conversation, but John supposed that came with the lack of people skills merit badge.

"He's not comfortable with . . . with us," McKay softly explained. "He says he dates just to maintain his cover so his father won't fire and disinherit him. He says it's all just an act with the women, but . . . he's been seeing the same one for over two years now, and . . . well, I'm pretty sure they're not just holding hands."

That had to hurt.

"And you're taking this trip because you're thinking of dumping him?" John guessed.

"Yes." McKay looked down at the shrimp tails that were all that was left on the plate in front of him. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I don't even know you."

"Because I asked?" John offered.

"That's not a good enough reason, is it? I mean, he'd never tell a complete stranger – "

"No offense, McKay," John interrupted, wanting that rude, pushy guy back who'd defused that humiliating situation earlier, "But it doesn't sound like that guy would have the balls to go to the can alone."

"What does that say about me that I stayed with him so long, I wonder?" McKay said, seeming to be speaking more to himself than to him.

John wasn't usually good at consolation or offering comfort, but McKay's honesty made him want to make the guy feel better. Besides, he owed him for what he'd done earlier this evening. "We all make tradeoffs with our pride. It sounds like you went through some pretty tough times before he showed up. When someone pulls you out of a situation like that, gratitude and loyalty can make it hard to know when it's time to go."

"You make it sound so . . . reasonable. I've been feeling so . . . stupid lately," McKay admitted in such a low voice that John could barely hear him. "I thought that everyone would, you know, think I was an idiot for hanging on so long."

"Hey," John said, giving McKay his best grin. "I'm the guy whose face is always on the cover of the scandal sheets. I'm not about to make any judgments about someone who has managed a relationship for years."

McKay straightened in his chair and met his gaze. He looked totally lost. "And, if you were to make a judgment, what would you say?"

"Why would it matter to you what I thought?" John asked, thrown because McKay looked like his opinion mattered very much to him.

"You're good with people. You live your life the way you want to, and don't seem to give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks of you. That kind of courage is . . . admirable," McKay said.

John was shocked to realize the words weren't a come-on. McKay sounded like he was simply telling the truth. Swallowing hard, because he knew that most of the world considered him an expensive gigolo, with no admirable traits beyond good looks, he tried to work an answer out around the lump clogging his throat. "If I were forced to make a judgment, I'd probably say that you've got that same kind of courage and that you'll find your way through this."

"Courage? Me?" McKay appeared shocked.

"I don't know a single person who would have put that bigot in his place the way you did tonight. No matter why you did it, it still took guts. From the sound of things, you've invested a lot in this engineer guy. It only stands to reason that it would be hard to walk away from that when the time came."

"You think the time's come?" McKay asked.

John shrugged. "Only you can answer that. The fact that you're here might be an indication, though."

McKay gave a slow nod. "Yeah, I guess it is. Thanks. I'd, ah, already decided we were over, but he doesn't know it yet. I'm still not sure how I'm going to tell him."

The arrival of their dinner interrupted the unexpectedly heavy moment. John tried to regroup while eating. This kind of conversation was draining. He'd never met anyone with McKay's intensity. On the acquaintanceship of a few hours, McKay had revealed intimate personal facts that John didn't know about people he'd known for years. That kind of openness was . . . frightening. To let one's self be that known . . . .

Still, he found himself intrigued by his new companion. For all that he'd flaunted his unconventional affairs in the face of propriety, he didn't know if he'd have the guts to ever settle down with another man the way McKay had.

When they'd slowed down and were both nearly finished their meals, John found himself asking, "This engineer guy is just one page. What did you do when the other pages in your life . . . ended?"

John hoped that remembering how he'd handled the ending of his past relationships might give McKay some insight on how to deal with his current problem. In his own life, the moving on had become the easiest, most familiar part of seeing someone.

McKay gave a snort that sounded strangely self-deprecating. "He's the only page."

"You mean . . . ." John shut his mouth on the rest of the question. It was none of his god damned business.

But McKay simply nodded, although he appeared self-conscious. "I was . . . pretty naive when he met me. He was experienced. I . . . fell pretty hard."

So hard that five years later, when the bastard was cheating on him, McKay still was having trouble making the break. John found himself angry on McKay's behalf. That engineer guy was some operator. John was only too familiar with the type.

Not liking the air of depression that had settled over his companion, John said, "So it only makes sense that this wouldn't be easy, then. Maybe it's time for you to turn the page, start something new. A shipboard romance might be just the thing to help you make your decision."

Only after the words were out did John recognize what they sounded like.

McKay froze across from him. John could tell almost the exact instant McKay remembered his press, because those blue eyes hardened until they glinted cold as star sapphires as McKay asked in an angry tone, "So, uh, you've had quite a few pages in your book, huh? Or perhaps 'few' is the wrong word."

"Well, let's say it's not precise," John fielded, because if pressed, he couldn't give a correct count of the number of people he'd slept with, and while he'd never been ashamed of his promiscuousness in the past, something in McKay's expression made him feel so now. John recognized that his unintentional suggestion, which had obviously been taken as a crude come-on, had cheapened their encounter in McKay's eyes.

Why that should matter to him, John didn't know, but for some reason it did.

"And I suppose they've all been madly in love with you," McKay said. His tone was nearly baiting, but he appeared more hurt than vindictive.

"I doubt it," John calmly denied. "Love hardly ever enters into it, does it? They all knew who and what I was from the start."

"But you haven't had much respect for them," McKay persisted.

It didn't take a shrink to figure out that McKay was having respect issues. Self-respect issues. Realizing what his unconscious flirting had come across as, McKay probably thought himself just another conquest, and, of course, there was no way for John to diplomatically explain to McKay that he wasn't even his type and it would never happen. So, he lowered his gaze and tried to defend himself, "To the contrary – "

"Still you've always been very fair in your judgments," McKay continued in a sarcastic tone.

Deciding that a little honesty was called for, John gave the angry man across from him the truth.

"Yes, I've been more than fair. I've idolized them. Every one of them, I put up there," John lifted his open hand upwards, as if pushing a heavy weight up. "But the longer I know them, and the better I know them . . . . " John allowed his hand to sink down, as if under a crushing weight.

"But it's hard to keep them up there, isn't it?" McKay said, seeming more resigned than angry now. "Pretty soon the pedestal wobbles, and then topples, and then there's nothing left but the inconvenient truth."

They both seemed to realize at the same instant that McKay was no longer speaking exclusively about John's checkered past.

McKay's cheeks turned bright red as he looked down at his empty plate.

"C'est la vie," John said in a gentle tone.

McKay glanced tentatively back at him, as if uncertain as to what to say now.

"What? You think that's the worst I've heard?" John asked with a humorless chuckle. "You had a small taste of some of what I live with earlier tonight, and that wasn't even the worst. I promise you that. Don't trouble yourself, McKay."

John wondered how fast he could beat a retreat. This was long past uncomfortable.

"No, I – I shouldn't have said those things. I know you were just trying to be kind when you . . . ." McKay turned beet red again.

"Trying to be kind?" John questioned, lost again in this emotional minefield that was conversation with Rodney McKay.

Understanding hit with McKay's almost stuttering reply.

"I know that . . . someone like you would never really want to . . . with me . . . that I'm not . . . ."

That I'm not anyone you'd ever be interested in, the concept, if not the actual words, was there in McKay's eyes as clearly as if John had spoken the truth aloud. And, suddenly John felt sick to his stomach at what he'd unconsciously done.

McKay thought he'd been offering him a pity fuck. No wonder he'd gotten so angry.

This abrasive man was a lot of things, but an object of pity wasn't one of them.

But how to tell McKay that without making the situation worse? Like it could get worse.

Fortunately, John was used to thinking on his feet in situations like this. Abruptly, he was quite ashamed of himself because he'd made the same kind of snap judgment that people normally made about him, based on nothing more than the few extra pounds around McKay's waist and his receding hairline. He genuinely liked McKay.

John wondered when he'd become the shallow gigolo the rest of the world deemed him. McKay had been the first person in forever who'd treated him like something other than a piece of meat or something unpleasant they'd stepped in, and just because the guy didn't look like a movie star, John had discounted him as a potential lover. If McKay had looked like Alex their waiter, John knew he would have been pursuing someone this charismatic hot and heavy by now.

John knew that it wasn't all about looks for him, or at least it hadn't always been so. There was a time when he'd been attracted by a person's personality as well as their appearance, and, honestly, McKay wasn't bad looking. He had the kind of face John had once loved to paint, a face filled with character and strength, but somehow still kind. McKay's body might be a little on the soft side, but John liked soft. And those magnetic eyes, they were a blue as bright and clear as the warm Mediterranean waters surrounding the ship.

So, why hadn't he pursued McKay? Or perhaps he had, subconsciously, John suddenly realized. He couldn't figure out why else would he have remained here once McKay had insisted that he tell him more about himself.

Being with McKay mightn't be easy, but it sure wasn't boring. And the honesty was unprecedented.

Looking at McKay in a totally new light, John searched for the words to make this better.

"McKay . . . Rodney . . . I don't say things I don't mean," John quietly insisted.

"You're not suggesting that you seriously – "

"Why would I have said it, otherwise?" John asked, holding that uncertain gaze.

McKay flushed again, only this time it wasn't with anger, and John couldn't help but note how good he looked when he blushed.

"When you're ready to turn that page, if you're interested, I'll be around," John said, not forcing the issue because he could see how he'd unbalanced McKay.

Maybe McKay hadn't lied about being a genius, for he asked in a worried voice, "Are you letting me down easy now? We both know I'm not exactly the . . . type of page you usually bother with."

"You might be surprised by the pages I've turned and the books I've read. Or maybe not. The thing about books is that they're all different," John said. "Some of them are dime store novels. It doesn't matter how rough you are with the pages, because you can always replace it on the next corner. But other books are rare and require careful handling. You're not a dime store novel. I'm not about to rip my way into any pages here, okay?"

"So what are you saying then?" McKay asked, seeming completely bewildered.

"I guess I'm asking if you'll come to the casino with me when the ship docks in Monte Carlo tomorrow," John said.

"Go out . . . with you?" McKay questioned.

Suddenly, John was glad he'd asked. McKay appeared overwhelmed by the request, but not in a bad way.

"Why not? It could be fun," John said.

Something told him that McKay didn't have whole lot of fun in his life, and John wanted to change that. He wanted to show McKay a little bit of the world and get to know this unusual man better.

John still wasn't sure this would go anywhere sexually, but at the very least it promised to take his mind off his upcoming marriage for a while.

Or so he'd hoped.

Not only did McKay's next words bring that hope crashing down around him, but they also crystallized the fact that McKay wasn't viewing his invitation as two bachelors at loose ends spending the day together, that McKay was seeing the invitation as a date. "But you're, um, engaged."

"Yes. Elizabeth and I have an understanding about these things," John said. When he saw McKay's eyes narrow skeptically, he added, "Honest. She has her own . . . interests that a traditional marriage would cramp."

"She doesn't care if you . . . . " McKay sounded both stunned and appalled.

"Not really," John answered.

"I don't understand that. I mean, if you and I were, I wouldn't – shutting up now," McKay cut off with another blush.

Damn, McKay was so unguarded. It shouldn't have been attractive, but somehow it was. John felt his face gentle as he asked, "So what do you think? Do you want to spend the day with me?"

McKay gave a slow nod. Every one of his reservations was visible in his face. "Sure. Why not? Like you said, it could be fun." Then McKay floored him by voicing his earlier thought. "And it's not like this has any chance of going anywhere."

John's innate stubbornness wouldn't allow that statement to pass unchallenged. "You never can tell."

McKay's mouth twisted into a crooked, sad smile. "We're from different worlds. We barely have a language in common."

"Maybe, but sometimes worlds collide." John allowed himself to openly flirt.

To his amused embarrassment, McKay snorted at his attempt. "Tell me, does that line actually work for you?"

John was dismayed to feel his own cheeks heat. "Well, actually . . . yes, it does."

"You're embarrassed!" McKay crowed with something like glee.

John found himself snapping, "Well, of course I'm embarrassed. You just criticized my technique."

"If that's your idea of charm and technique, you're going to have to work harder than that. Genius, here," McKay said in a teasing, playful tone.

Strangely unangered by what should have been insufferable gall, John met those laughing eyes and reminded, "Lack of people skills' merit badge."

Delighted, he watched McKay break into laughter. It seemed to light his entire face. John resolved that he'd do his best to put that light there as often as possible in the next few days.

"Did you want coffee or dessert, sirs?"

They both started in their seats at finding Alex standing at their table.

"Er, no, I'm done," McKay stammered.

"Me, too. Thank you, Alex."

They both watched the good-looking blond walk away.

"Well, this was . . . ." McKay's genius brain seemed stumped for an appropriate adjective.

"Really strange," John said, "but really good."

For someone who'd just finished criticizing his technique, McKay appeared oddly touched by his words. "Really?"

John smiled. "Really. Come on, I'll walk you back to your cabin."

"You don't have to do that," McKay protested.

"I know. I want to."

Leaving the dining room, they drifted to the outer deck. The sun had set while they were at dinner. The land was on the opposite side of the ship, so all they could see on this side was wide open waters. The sea was now an inky, shifting mystery, speckled with the shining flecks of reflected stars.

McKay stopped dead in his tracks beside him, staring out at the waters and then up at the sky.

"I haven't seen the stars this clearly since I left Myra Falls." McKay's whisper was hushed and unconsciously sensual.

John was surprised to find that the innocent wonder gentling McKay's upturned face was far more riveting than the view. His insides clenched in reaction. The tightness wasn't entirely unpleasant. Not unpleasant at all, actually. But it was different than anything he was used to. Tender and yearning weren't feelings he normally associated with a seduction. Most times these days, he was lucky if he felt anything at all.

More than anything, John wanted to cover those slightly parted lips with his own. He sucked in a quick breath, willing the weird response to pass. He didn't usually kiss the men he slept with, at least not unless they initiated it.

"You all right?" McKay asked, glancing over at him and beginning to walk again.

John fell into step beside him, and nodded, not at all sure.

They had the deck to themselves at the moment. It felt good to walk this dark, romantic stretch with McKay at his side.

"Well, this is me," McKay said, stopping before one of the first class quarters that was a few doors down from his own, his sudden awkwardness palpable. "Er, goodnight."

John quickly checked their surroundings and then softly called, "Rodney?"

McKay stopped, a question in his expressive, starlit face.

John abruptly realized that McKay was looking at him the same way he'd been looking at the stars before. That same fluttery tightness he'd felt before gripped him. This time John didn't resist the urge to cover that slender mouth with his own.

John was shocked by what he was doing. For all his exploits, he'd never kissed another man in what amounted to a public corridor before. Stars knew, he'd gotten into enough trouble with the press when he and his male paramours were behind locked doors. This was . . . insane.

It was also a grave error. John could feel how utterly stunned McKay was. The lips beneath his own were frozen in shock and instinctive repudiation. John knew he'd made a mistake and was in all kinds of trouble for this. But then . . . but then McKay's mouth seemed to melt beneath his.

McKay's strong, square hands settled on the back of John's black dinner jacket, urging him closer. Then McKay's lips parted and his tongue brushed tentatively against John's lips, and John found himself literally drowning in sensation and more pure emotion than he normally experienced during orgasm.

McKay had only had a few sips of the wine, but he still tasted of the merlot they'd had with dinner. Beneath it was another headier flavor that had to be the man himself. John drank it down like he'd been thirsting in a desert his entire life and Rodney was clear, cool water.

How long they remained lip-locked, John didn't know.

A woman's laughter drifted down from the upper deck. John knew there was a stairwell just a few yards away, and that anyone could come down it at any second. But he was so lost in the kiss that he didn't care.

At the laughter, Rodney made an alarmed sound in the back of his throat, and pulled away with visible reluctance.

Feeling almost dazed or drugged, John stared into Rodney's equally stunned features. To his relief, he wasn't the only one breathing hard. McKay appeared almost shell-shocked. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes widely dilated.

John couldn't recall the last time he'd been off-center in a sexual situation, but he didn't have a clue as to what he should say right now. Rodney still looked like he'd forgotten how to speak.

Finally, John cleared his throat, giving a gruff, "Maybe we're not from different worlds, after all."

He noticed that this time Rodney didn't critique his line.

"Um . . . ." seemed to be all Rodney could say.

"I'll meet you out here at noon, okay?" John said, hoping Rodney wasn't about to panic and bail on him. He knew he could push the issue and find his way into McKay's bed if he really wanted to, but he could see that Rodney wasn't up to it. There was something in the other man's eyes that made John think McKay was almost frightened at the moment.

It seemed to take McKay a moment to interpret his words, but when he did, the anxiety seemed to fade. "All right. Er, what should I wear? I've never been to a casino before."

John wondered if half of the warmth that flowed through him at Rodney's innocent question were reflected in his smile. "Casino Monte Carlo is pretty fancy. If you've got a tux, wear it. If not, suit and tie."

McKay nodded. "Um . . . thanks."

John wasn't sure if McKay were thanking him for the information or the kiss. Either way, he knew he had to get out of here quick or he wouldn't be leaving at all.

"See you then," John said. Unable to stop himself, he reached out and touched Rodney's flushed cheek. Rodney's instinctive gasp did things to him that other people's mouths on his cock hadn't. Dragging in a desperate breath, John said, "If I'm going, I better get out of here."

His hungry body prayed Rodney would tell him to stay, but the guy still seemed overwhelmed. Rodney gave a numb-looking nod, and John finally managed to tear himself away. He could feel that dazed gaze following him all the way back to his cabin.

*~*~*

Rodney opened his eyes, nearly blinded by the bright sunlight splashing in through the tiny porthole opposite his bed. He was amazed that he'd slept at all. It felt like he'd spent the entire night tossing and turning, replaying his dinner with Sheppard and that incredible kiss.

That kiss . . . his lips still seemed to burn from it. Everything he'd read and heard about Sheppard's lethal sexuality was true. The man really could rouse the dead. Himself, point in fact.

Rodney still didn't understand why Sheppard had asked him out, or why he'd kissed him. He'd seen the three gorgeous women with whom Sheppard had entered the hallway outside the dining room; he'd seen the way those hazel eyes had admired their handsome young waiter. Those were the kind of people a man like Sheppard belonged with. Not . . . him.

But Sheppard had kissed him. What's more, Sheppard had seemed as blasted away by it as Rodney had felt. That was ridiculous, of course. Rodney knew that it would take more than a simple kiss to float a bohemian like Sheppard's boat, and, yet, Rodney's memory still insisted on painting Sheppard as star struck as he'd been himself.

That gorgeous man had asked to spend the day with him, Rodney thought, his lips curving up into a grin. If he didn't sleep through it.

For a panicked moment, he wondered how long he'd slept. It would be just like him to oversleep and not wake up till two in the afternoon. He'd certainly done it before. But his frantic glance at the clock on the table showed him that it was just a little before eleven. He had plenty of time to shower and dress.

Rodney was still more than a little anxious about going out with Sheppard. They both knew he was playing out of his league here. Sheppard was part of a privileged class that people like him only read about. And, if that weren't daunting enough, there was that whole engaged business. Rodney still wasn't sure if he believed Sheppard's claim of a nonexclusive relationship. But, then, it really wasn't his business if Sheppard were cheating on his finance. It wasn't like he was any real threat to her, anyway. What did he have that could possibly rival Elizabeth Weir's 600 million dollars?

The idea was utterly ludicrous. Even if Sheppard and he did end up in the sack, a likelihood Rodney was thinking more and more possible, it wouldn't be anything more than just another of Sheppard's infamous sexual exploits, just a shipboard romance that would be forgotten as soon as they walked down the New York gangplank. Strangely enough, Rodney found that he was okay with that thought, just as long as he got lots more of those mind-altering kisses before they walked away from each other forever.

The thought of having sex with someone other than Trent was strange. Trent might be a world-class screw up, but he'd been Rodney's first and only love.

Even though he'd decided they were over, Rodney still felt as if he were cheating on Trent. But how could you cheat on someone who was unwilling to claim you as his own, he wondered. It had been more than two years since there had been any real passion between them. They had sex once a week, but it wasn't like it used to be. Trent was . . . distant, and Rodney himself was aching, hurting over the loss of something that he now realized he'd never really had.

He knew he'd made the right decision yesterday, and his meeting Sheppard immediately afterwards almost seemed like a cosmic indication that he'd made the right move – if he believed in such things, which he didn't. Laura, however, would have been totally convinced that fate had sent John Sheppard his way yesterday, and after experiencing Sheppard's kiss there was a part of Rodney that couldn't deny that it had felt predestined. And, damn, that kind of thinking was so not good.

One kiss, and he was happy to walk away from a five-year relationship. He didn't want to consider what sex with Sheppard would do to him if he were this infatuated after a single kiss. He knew he should pull back now and cancel this outing, before he got his heart broken again. He knew Sheppard couldn't have any serious interest in him, that he was just a change of pace for the jaded playboy, but even knowing and accepting the impossibility of ever meaning anything to John Sheppard, Rodney wanted to experience the man. That kiss had made him feel alive again, and it might be foolish, but Rodney was tired of being numb.

So . . . he was openly inviting heartbreak. And he called himself a genius?

He was startled out of his reverie by the blare of the ringing telephone. Rodney stared at the black receiver, almost afraid to pick it up. Every instinct he owned told him that it would be Sheppard calling to cancel their date after receiving a better offer from someone else. He'd known how unlikely it would be for Sheppard to actually go through with the date . . . about as improbable as that kiss had been.

Bracing himself, Rodney picked up the phone and gave a tentative, "Hello?"

"RODNEY! A familiar Brooklyn accented voice shrieked into his ear, nearly deafening him. "CARSON, CARSON! I've got Rodney on the phone!"

"For God's sake, don't deafen the man," Carson's familiar Scottish burr warned.

"Laura?" Rodney asked, still unable to believe that it wasn't Sheppard calling to dump him.

"Hi, Rodney! How are you?" Laura asked.

Rodney thought about it. "Good. I'm good."

"Really?" she sounded understandably doubtful. Carson had no doubt told her what a basket case he'd been when he'd driven him to the pier.

"Yeah, really," Rodney said.

"Where are you?" Laura asked.

"Monte Carlo," Rodney answered, smiling as Laura excitedly yelled, "He's in Monte Carlo!"

"I can hear that, luv," Carson's gentle voice said, just a little muffled. "I'm right here sharing the phone with you."

"This has got to be costing you a fortune," Rodney said, aware of long distance prices. He couldn't imagine how much it cost to call a boat.

"Don't worry about it," Laura insisted.

Rodney grinned, because he could almost see Carson wincing on the other side of the world.

"Have you been to the casinos yet?" Laura demanded, all excited enthusiasm. "Please tell me you're not hiding out in your cabin."

"No, I, er, I've left the cabin. I'm actually going to the casino in about an hour," Rodney said.

"Oh, wow. Is it beautiful there?" Laura asked.

Even if it had been horrible, Rodney would have answered, "It's like something out of a dream."

"That's great. Rodney, I'm so proud of you," Laura gushed. "Going to a Monte Carlo casino alone. I just never thought you'd actually – "

Really beginning to enjoy this, Rodney grinned. He wondered if he were blushing again. He sure as hell felt hot. "Er, I'm not going alone."

Stunned silence, then Laura's totally excited voice asked, "You're not? Did you meet someone?"

"You could say that," Rodney answered.

"Who? I want details, now!" Laura demanded. Rodney heard Carson's muffled voice laughing, "There'll be no living with her until you tell her, so out with it, man."

"I, um, had dinner with John Sheppard last night. I'm going to the casino with him," Rodney informed.

"Who? John . . . you don't mean Johnnie Sheppard, the Johnnie Sheppard?" Laura asked on a rising pitch that would shatter glass.

"He doesn't strike me as a Johnnie," Rodney said, not sure why he felt that way. "But, yes, that John Sheppard."

Rodney was sure he could have heard Laura's resulting squeal of delight without benefit of phone.

"God, luv, my ears," Carson complained, receiving an immediate, "Sorry. Rodney, tell me everything!" from Laura.

"Not much to tell," Rodney said, not wanting to jinx things by sharing details too early. Sheppard could still call to cancel. "We had dinner last night. He asked me to go to the casino with him today."

"On a date? You're going on a date with Johnnie Sheppard?" Laura prompted.

"Laura, don't ask him something like that," Carson chided. "It's not . . . proper."

Rodney had to smile. Carson had no idea how intimate some of the things Laura asked him could be.

"Look, I'm going to be late if I don't get ready. I can't believe you guys called me!" Rodney said.

His smile turned into a grin as Laura protested, "You didn't answer the question! Rodney, RODNEY! Hey, Carson, give me back – "

"Rodney, lad," Carson's breathy, laughing voice said with perfect clarity. Rodney could almost see his two friends tussling playfully over the receiver.

"Hi, Carson," Rodney greeted.

"Have fun. I'm sure we'll be talking to you soon," Carson sounded resigned to that fact.

"Bye, Carson! Bye, Laura!" Rodney said.

"NO! Don't you dare hang up that phone until he – " Rodney grinned as a click and dial tone followed Laura's frantic words.

He replaced the phone on the hook, fully expecting it to ring again as Laura called back. Rodney knew she could talk Carson into anything.

God, but he loved those people.

But the phone stayed silent, and he finally pried himself out of bed.

At twelve noon precisely, Rodney stepped out of his cabin, his hair still damp from his shower. He felt ridiculous wearing his tuxedo at this time of the day, but when he saw John Sheppard standing by the railing in a sleek black tux, watching his door intent as a border collie guarding its flock, he was glad he'd worn it. The bright sunlight was just as smitten with Sheppard as the starlight had been.

Sheppard's hair was standing up straight in the front, sticking out in a dozen directions on the sides. Rodney wondered if the effect were intentional or if the man simply never combed his hair. Sheppard hadn't shaved, either, but that five o'clock shadow looked sexy as hell on him.

Rodney gulped as he met those changeable hazel eyes. He hadn't a clue as to what to say. He settled on a totally stupid, "Hi."

Sheppard's grin wasn't the least bit mocking as he answered, "Hi, yourself. I'm glad you came. I, ah, half-expected you to call and cancel."

Rodney did not offer his own similar fears. Instead, he gulped and said, "No, er, I'm here."

"I can see that," Sheppard said. "Nice tux."

Rodney couldn't tell if Sheppard were teasing him or not. The man's eyes seemed filled with laughter most of the time.

Deciding to take the words at face value, Rodney answered, "Thanks. Yours is very . . . sleek."

"Sleek, huh? Cool." Sheppard appeared to like that adjective, for his smile grew as warm as the Mediterranean sun. "Shall we?"

Rodney nodded and fell into step with Sheppard.

The deck was crowded this afternoon. Most of the other passengers seemed to be heading the same way as them, no doubt drawn by the lure of their exotic port of call.

Rodney couldn't help but notice how many stares they received. It seemed everyone knew Sheppard's face.

"Is it always like this?" Rodney whispered as they crossed a gangplank onto the smaller boat that would ferry them to shore.

"Huh?" John absently questioned, his eyes seemed to be drawn to the magnificent city nestled between the shore and spectacular, white-capped Alps.

"People staring," Rodney explained, whispering right into Sheppard's ear as they stopped against the ferry's railing.

Rodney admired the slow, nonchalant way Sheppard moved his gaze from the scenery to his fellow passengers. Sheppard's reply was equally unperturbed. "Yeah, this actually isn't too bad."

"Doesn't it bother you?" Rodney asked.

Sheppard shrugged. "Nothing I can do about it. I know not everyone can take life in a fishbowl. You reconsidering spending the day with me?"

Rodney could almost feel those strangers' watching eyes burning into his cheek as Sheppard and he conversed in low tones. He hated the attention, but . . . not enough to pass up a day with Sheppard. He knew if he lived to be a hundred, this day would be something he'd never forget. "No, of course not. It's just – "

Sheppard raised his voice the tiniest bit, just enough to be overheard without being obvious about it, "Thoughtless and rude?"

"Thoughtless and rude. Yeah, that was what I was thinking," Rodney said, pointedly returning the stares of a nearby elderly couple, who finally took the hint and turned their eyes towards shore.

Sheppard chuckled and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "You'll do just fine."

Rodney didn't know what he was more enraptured with, the man beside him or the fairytale beauty of the city they were approaching. The ride to shore and subsequent cab trip to the casino passed in a blur. All he was aware of were picturesque, sun-drenched buildings and more lush, tropical growth than he'd ever seen. There seemed to be flowers everywhere.

When their cab pulled to a stop before the casino, Rodney felt as if his eyes would pop out of his head. Even he could hear the hushed reverence in his own voice as he whispered to Sheppard, "It's a palace."

To Sheppard's credit, he didn't laugh at him. Rodney knew he was being embarrassingly overwhelmed by something that was no doubt quite ordinary and familiar to someone like Sheppard.

But Sheppard's voice sounded a little rough as he answered, "Yeah, pretty much. The casino was built in 1878 by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris opera house. It's something to see, isn't it? Let's go in by the back entrance, okay? It makes the front look plebeian."

Rodney stared up at the ornate architecture, wondering what could make this look common. "Plebeian, huh?"

"Yep. See for yourself," Sheppard said with that grin that Rodney was becoming addicted to.

"Okay," Rodney said, following John along a walkway that ran around the side of the casino. The building seemed to go on forever. "This place is like miles big."

John nodded. "They don't believe in doing anything small here."

Trying not to appear so overwhelmed, Rodney said, "I've got to warn you. I've lived in Manhattan for five years now, so it's hard to impress – "

Rodney's words cut off as they rounded the building, his eyes bulging as he took in the fountain and garden terraces.

"You were saying?" John joked beside him.

"Okay, I'm impressed – very impressed," Rodney whispered.

The fountains gushing on the terraced landscape were so picturesque they looked unreal, Rodney thought. He was barely able to believe the onyx in the Greek columns that lined the atrium. He'd never seen that much onyx in his life. There seemed to be level upon level of terraces and gardens surrounding the palatial casino.

Rodney followed Sheppard through the exterior gardens in a daze. Fortunately, Sheppard appeared to know where he was going. Rodney couldn't help but note how informed Sheppard seemed to be about the sculptures in the gardens. Once they went inside, Sheppard was the same with the oil paintings and frescoes. It was as if he knew each piece intimately. It was almost as though John were introducing him to an old friend every time they stopped to admire a particular piece.

"You, ah, know a lot about art," Rodney commented when they stopped for a drink in one of the numerous bars. Their table was beneath a magnificent oil landscape that John didn't seem to be able to take his eyes off.

Rodney's own gaze was fixed on his companion, who seemed to belong in this kind of exquisite setting. As far as he could see, John was just as unique and breath-taking as any of the art. He realized that he was becoming hopelessly infatuated with Sheppard. His self-preservation instincts warned him that this was not a good development, but it had been so long since anyone had looked at him with true desire that this handsome man's attentions were as irresistible as they were no doubt fleeting.

"It was a love of mine once," John said, sounding a little self-conscious. "Actually, my greatest love."

"But not anymore?" Rodney asked, confused by the deep emotions he sensed beneath that undisturbed exterior.

"I guess you could say I failed her. No big surprise, huh?" Sheppard said, visibly trying to laugh off whatever was bothering him.

"John?" Rodney questioned, worried by the self-denigrating attitude.

The shadows left those hazel eyes as Sheppard turned his gaze from the painting to Rodney's face. He sounded astonished as he said, "You called me John."

"Er, shouldn't I have?" Rodney checked. Lowering his voice, he defended, "After last night, I sort of thought we were on a first name basis."

John's grin was pure sunlight. "You didn't call me Johnnie."

"Did you want me to?" Rodney was confused by the mixed signals he was getting.

Sheppard gave a negative shake of his head. "No. My name is John. It's just that everyone always follows the papers' lead and calls me Johnnie."

"You don't strike me as being a Johnnie," Rodney said, unable to believe how tickled he was at having pleased John. "And, anyway, we already established last night that I'm not like everyone else, remember?"

John gave a slow nod and a strangely soft, "I'm beginning to realize that."

Wishing that his skin wasn't quite so fair so that his flushes wouldn't be quite so embarrassing, Rodney tried to hold John's gaze. He felt more nervous and out of sorts than he had the first time Trent kissed him.

"So what do you want to do next?" John asked. "There's the casino, the ballet, more restaurants – "

"There's a ballet?" Rodney asked.

John nodded. "The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It's world famous. Do you like ballet?"

Laura adored ballet, and often when Carson had to work late, Rodney would accompany her. He knew most men considered ballet frivolous, if not downright unmanly. Trent constantly mocked him about going. He couldn't help but wonder where Sheppard stood on the subject. John's question had sounded curious, not judgmental.

Deciding to take a chance, Rodney answered, "Laura really loves it. I go with her sometimes. I know it sounds totally shallow, but I . . . like the tight pants the men wear."

John's chuckle wasn't the least bit mean. "So do I. Who's Laura? You holding out on me?"

"Huh?" Rodney blinked. John had asked the last question playfully, but there was something intense in his eyes.

"Laura," John said.

"Oh. She's Carson's wife," Rodney explained.

It was only when John asked, "And Carson would be?" that Rodney was reminded of what absolute strangers they were to each other. For some reason, he felt like he knew John, or perhaps it was simply wishful thinking. He wanted to know the man, and not just biblically.

"They're my neighbors and best friends. They live downstairs from me," Rodney said. "Carson is my doctor, too."

"Oh," John said, something in his face seeming to relax. "Your doctor? Is there anything wrong? I mean . . . ."

Once again, Rodney couldn't see anything but interest and perhaps concern in John's attitude. He knew it wasn't exactly romantic to discuss health problems, but thought he should tell John upfront. He was careful, but with all the exotic and rich food he'd been eating on this cruise, there was no telling when he might have a reaction to something. "I'm allergic to . . . well, nearly everything, and I've got asthma."

"Ah. Nothing horrible, then." John didn't seem put off by the revelation.

"You haven't seen me when my allergies act up. It can be pretty scary," Rodney confessed, not up to mentioning the anaphylactic shock that had nearly killed him after a bee sting last summer.

"Do you have to carry epinephrine?" John surprised him by asking.

Rodney gave a slow nod. "How'd you know about that?"

"I dated a woman who was deathly allergic to oregano," John said.

"Oh." Of course. With the number of people John had dated, Rodney probably wouldn't be able to name a disease that someone John had known hadn't had. He didn't know if he felt jealous or inadequate. Either way, it wasn't good. John didn't strike him as the kind of man who'd suffer a jealous lover, and as for feeling inadequate, Rodney didn't need any more reminders of how out of his league John Sheppard was.

"Where do you keep the epinephrine? Just in case," John asked, adding, "What?"

Rodney tried to tell himself that John's casual question wasn't a big deal, but it only seemed to illustrate how completely unique this man was. "I . . . it's nothing."

"It wasn't nothing. You looked like I'd just coshed you with a dead fish. What's up?" John persisted.

"It's going to sound stupid," Rodney said.

"We've already established you're a genius. How stupid could it sound? Tell me," John said, his eyes going all soft and beseeching.

That puppy dog look finished him. Taking a deep breath, Rodney tried to answer as nonchalantly as possible. "You startled me, that's all. It's just that in the five years I've been with him, Trent has never asked me once where the epinephrine was."

"Trent is the workaholic?" John questioned.

Rodney nodded.

John's expression hardened, and for a minute Rodney was certain that John was angry at him for making that kind of comparison. It wasn't like they were in a relationship. They weren't even lovers yet. Rodney knew it was damn inappropriate for him to be comparing John to Trent, even if Trent were coming up the loser in every department.

"That guy sounds like a complete loser, if you don't mind my saying," John said.

Rodney let out his captured breath, and answered, "No, I don't mind," in a voice so soft with relief that he could hear the difference himself.

He waited for the 'you could do better' line that Laura and Carson always gave him after making that kind of comment about Trent. He knew they meant well, but he always felt like an idiot when they pointed out how obvious it was that Trent didn't truly care about him.

John didn't say anything like it. Instead, he smiled at him and reminded, "You never told me where the epinephrine is."

"Er, my right jacket pocket," Rodney said, surprised that John had noticed.

"Good. I'll keep it in mind." His smile brightening, John said, "You never answered my other question, either."

"Huh?" Rodney had totally lost track of the conversation.

"You never did say if you wanted to see the ballet? I believe they're performing Swan Lake today."

Rodney looked at John and asked, "You'd want to do that?"

"Sure, tight pants, remember?" John said with a conspiratorial wink.

Laughter bubbled through him. Rodney couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed this much in twenty-four hours.

They finished up their drinks and left the bar.

Following John through the magnificently furnished rooms, Rodney felt like he was being given a tour of a castle by a king. That Sheppard was a frequent visitor here was obvious. The entire staff seemed to know and love him, treating John like the royalty Rodney fancied him. The clerk at the ticket booth they purchased their ballet tickets from clearly dealt with John on a regular basis and had a thing for him. John's boyish charm just about melted the poor woman.

Rodney could sympathize. It was doing the same thing to him. And hearing John rattle away in French, which had always annoyed him when people spoke it when he was young, was a major turn-on.

"You come here a lot, huh?" Rodney asked as they left the ticket booth with John's cheery "Au revoir, Terry," ringing in the air.

John nodded. "Vacationing at Monte Carlo is sort of expected. I don't really like the . . . well, the art helps."

John said it like coming to Casino Monte Carlo was a chore. Puzzling over the 'art helps' line he followed his companion through the crowded corridors.

Rodney couldn't help but notice the frequent, envious glances thrown his way by many of the beautiful women and attractive men they passed. Sometimes, they didn't restrict their interest to glances. A few people, of both genders, gushed at John like he was Elvis Presley, while one or two made so bold as to touch him.

John was gracious with them all, far more so than the silently fuming Rodney thought he should be, but under it, Rodney could tell how much that attention bothered John.

"Johnnie Sheppard." A luscious blonde in a sleeveless, clinging blue evening gown reached out to touch John's arm in the hall as they headed towards the ballet theatre. Her face was round and sensual, with perfect features and even more perfect makeup. Her deep green eyes gave Rodney a dismissive once-over before devouring John whole. "How are you, dear? We met at Gabriella's ball last summer."

"I remember. Hello, Rowena," John said with a smile that was very different from the ones Rodney had experienced today.

It took him a minute to recognize what the difference was. This smile never touched John's eyes.

"It's so good to see you," Rowena enthused. "Where are you rushing off to?"

Rodney gulped and held his breath, fully expecting John to invite her along to the ballet. She was certainly more the type of person that John should be spending his time with. That she thought so as well was embarrassingly clear.

"My friend and I are late for an appointment, so I'm afraid you'll have to excuse us," John said. "Good to see you, Rowena. Enjoy your day."

Then, before Rodney could even react, John took his elbow and guided him quickly through the crowd.

Rodney was so stunned by John's action that it took him a while to notice where John led him. The theatre was like nothing he'd ever seen. It made New York's Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan Opera House look shabby by comparison.

"This is the Salle Garnier," John informed Rodney as they settled into their red velvet seats. He seemed to be over his reaction to Rowena.

Feeling very much like the Myra Falls country bumpkin he'd once been, Rodney stared around the red and gold decorated auditorium, taking in the ornate bas-reliefs, frescoes, and sculptures lining the walls. He hoped he wasn't gaping wide-eyed at the place, but feared the worst.

When he was finally able to rip his gaze off the decorations, John's grin told him he'd been fully as embarrassing as he'd dreaded.

"Sorry," Rodney muttered, feeling his cheeks heat.

John sobered, his grin dropping away. His gaze was nearly as gentle as his tone as John answered, "Don't be. Most of the people I come here with are so spoiled and jaded that they never see the incredible beauty of this place. It's good to be with someone who actually sees."

Rodney's throat was tightening up so bad that he thought it might choke him. He knew better than to expose that, though. Forcing himself to act nonchalant, even though John's tone and words had made his legs go weak, Rodney said, "Genius, remember?"

John's grin was like pure sunlight. "Yeah, I remember."

The blinking of the overhead lights signaled the imminent start of the performance. They turned their attention to the stage as the last of the stragglers in the aisles found their seats.

The show proved just as magical as the rest of the day had been. Afterwards, they ate at the fanciest restaurant Rodney had ever seen and then hit the casino.

Rodney was surprised that John didn't want to stay longer at the gaming tables. His own funds were limited, but he knew most of the people in John's circle spent the entire night losing fortunes playing cards and roulette. Yet, John seemed content to simply escort him from one table to the next without placing bets himself.

Rodney watched the roulette wheel spin with its nerve-rattling clatter. He had the French equivalent of twenty dollars on 23 Red. To his utter astonishment, the little white ball bounced into 23 Red as the wheel finally slowed down. A startlingly large pile of chips was pushed his way.

"Congratulations," John said beside him.

"Wow," Rodney said, beginning to understand the allure of these kinds of places. "That's a lot of chips."

The other players all settled their chips on their numbers. 23 was Rodney's lucky number, but he knew that the chance of that little ball landing on the same number again were one in –

"I wouldn't leave that sitting there," John softly advised. "The odds of hitting that number again are 64,753,234 to one."

Rodney counted the number of variables, quickly calculating the odds, even as he moved two chips to another number, and withdrew the majority of his winnings from the table.

"That's right," Rodney whispered at last, turning to gawk at John.

"What?" John asked, seeming startled by whatever was in his expression.

"The odds of winning a second time with the same number are 64,753,234 to 1," Rodney explained.

"I know. I just said that to you," John said, his attention drawn by the spinning wheel.

Rodney barely even noticed when he lost the two chips he'd left on the table. He was too busy gaping at John. "How did you know that?"

John's expression seemed to indicate that he was asking a stupid question. "I did the math. How do you think I knew?"

John seemed perfectly serious.

"You did the math," Rodney repeated, his pulse drumming a driving beat as all the blood in his body seemed to rush southwards at this incredible turn-on. "There isn't one in a thousand people who could have figured those odds out with pen and paper, let alone in their heads."

"I've always been good with numbers," John dismissed, as though what he'd done hadn't been the super hot miracle it was. Seeming to catch on to his utter shock, John pointed out, "What's the big deal? You worked it out."

"Yeah, but I'm a genius," Rodney said.

"Modest, too," John cracked with an irresistible smile. "Look, it's nothing special, really. It's just one of the things I'm good at."

Drawing away from the crowded roulette table so that they could continue the conversation in the relative privacy of an empty space of wall between a sculpture of a muscular Greek athlete and the alcove under one of the many stained glass windows, Rodney asked, "What else are you good at?"

John raised his eyebrows, his eyes and grin telling Rodney exactly what this international playboy was good at. "I'll give you a demonstration later, if you like."

The temperature in the room suddenly seemed to double. Rodney gulped.

"Do you want to play some more?" John asked, changing the topic.

"What?" Rodney choked out, still caught on John's playful proposition.

"Roulette," John said, gesturing at the noisy room behind them.

"Er, no, I . . . I'm done. What about you?" Rodney asked. Even though John hadn't placed a bet the entire evening, Rodney wasn't making any assumptions.

"I'm good. Let's go cash those in," John suggested.

The cashier's booth was crowded. Rodney took his place on line, more aware of John Sheppard standing beside him than he'd ever been of another human being. He could nearly feel John's body heat down his entire right side as they slowly made their way to the cashier.

"Good evening, Seignior Sheppard," the middle aged, dark haired cashier greeted with a smile.

John grinned back at the man. "Hello, Francois. Good to see you."

"Did you do well tonight?" Francois asked John.

"No, I'm not playing today. My friend had a lucky streak," John said, indicating Rodney.

Francois' brown eyes warmed as they turned to him following John's introduction. "Welcome to Casino Monte Carlo, seignior. I trust you enjoyed yourself?"

"Yes, very much," Rodney said, surprised to find himself included under the umbrella of bonhomie that John Sheppard seemed to inspire in those who weren't inclined to stone him.

Rodney handed over his overflowing pile of chips. His eyes grew wider and wider as Francois counted out his winnings.

"That's a lot of money," Rodney said as he accepted the large pile of francs that his chips had turned into. He did some quick calculating as he took in the denominations of the bills and the number of each in the pile. There was a little over twelve thousand dollars there. He'd never had that much cash in his hand at one time in his life.

"Guess you're a natural at this," John said as they moved away from the booth once they'd thanked the cashier and John had promised to return soon.

Grinning, feeling happier than he had in years, Rodney shook his head. "No. I've lost small fortunes at poker. You're the lucky charm."

"It's early days yet," John said in a warning tone, that same darkness Rodney had observed in the bar when they'd been talking about art shadowing his face as they drew to a stop in an empty section of the hall outside the gaming room.

"What's that mean?" Rodney questioned, confused by what had brought this on.

John shrugged, held his gaze, and said in that same too-serious tone, "Most people end up cursing the day I darkened their doorstep. You might want to keep that in mind before this goes any further. You're . . . ."

"I know. I'm out of my league here," Rodney cut him off, angry because he'd so wanted the magic to last, even though he'd known from the start that someone like Sheppard couldn't possibly be interested in him. Clearly a day of escorting him through paradise had shown John his mistake.

To his confusion, John appeared almost stricken at his words. "No. It's just . . . you're not a player. There's something . . . unspoiled about you, and I don't want to be the one to ruin that."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Rodney demanded in a prickly tone, thrown totally off balance by John's sincerity. It was only after he'd spoken that he realized the compliment John had just paid him.

John gave a slow nod. "If I were a decent man, I'd do the right thing and walk away from you now, but . . . I'm weak. You need to know that going in."

"I mightn't have as many pages in my book as you, but I'm not . . . I'm not under any delusions here," Rodney assured. "I know what this is about."

"And you still want that demonstration?" John asked.

Rodney nodded. His anger thawing under John's worried expression, he said, "I'll remember this day for the rest of my life. I'd like a night to go with it. So, yeah, I still want that demonstration, providing it's still on offer?"

Rodney had thought his assurance would be enough to change John's mood around, but his words only seemed to make John's frown deepen.

"It's still on offer," John said. "Did you want to leave now?"

"Yes," Rodney said, his mouth running dry around the word as he realized that it was going to happen, that he was going to have sex with John. A week ago it would have been doing it with someone of John's notoriety that awed him, but tonight it was the man himself.

"All right, then," John said.

Once again, Rodney followed his companion through the plush carpeted hallways. This time they used the casino's main entrance.

Night had fallen while they were in the casino. It was pitch black outside. Rodney breathed deep of the fragrant, cool air and stopped next to John in the circular drop off area in front of the casino.

There were a line of cabs waiting at a nearby stand. A wave from a red-uniformed concierge brought one their way.

Between the cab ride and the ferry, it was over a half hour before they reached their ship.

Rodney couldn't help but notice that John had barely spoken a word to him the entire time.

Once aboard, they headed up towards the first class cabins, Rodney's nervousness increasing with every step.

"Look," Rodney said as his quarters came into sight. "If you've changed your mind, you can say so. I'm not a child."

John drew to a stop beside Rodney's door, stepping closer to him. "No. I haven't changed my mind."

"I guess the funereal expression had me confused," Rodney snarked back, not believing John for a moment.

John was standing so close that the warm breath from his sigh played teasingly across Rodney's cheek, leaving him shivering.

"I'm sorry," John said. "It's not . . . I just have more regrets than I can handle. Hurting you is going to be a major one."

"You say that like it's a foregone conclusion," Rodney said. He knew he was a fool, but looking into John's eyes, it really did seem as though John were worried about him rather than disinterested.

"Isn't it?" John challenged. "You don't strike me as a casual kind of guy."

Rodney could almost hear Trent complaining about how he always took everything too seriously.

Rodney gulped down the denial that sprang to his lips. Even if he were able to carry off the lie, he didn't want to start this portion of their limited time with an untruth. Rodney knew that the odds of him having more than one night with John Sheppard were higher than that little white roulette ball landing on his lucky number a second time, but he still wanted that night, even if he knew John was right and that he was already way too infatuated for his own good. So, he held John's gaze and said, "You're right. I'm not too good at casual, but . . . maybe it's worth it to me."

"God, Rodney. You don't fight fair," John muttered.

"Huh?" Rodney asked a second before John's mouth covered his.

The shock of that warm, eager kiss short-circuited Rodney's brain.

John hadn't joined him in any of the snacks he'd had while touring the casino. It had been hours since they'd eaten dinner. There were no food or wine flavors cloaking John's taste tonight. What he got was pure John Sheppard. That enticing flavor Rodney had encountered last night beneath the wine and Beef Wellington was all there was, and Rodney found himself drowning in it as John's tongue entered his mouth.

John tasted so good. The kiss was like nothing Rodney had ever experienced, which, considering that Trent was his only lover, made sense. John kissed like he meant it, like he was trying to melt right into Rodney through that oral connection. Rodney was more than okay with that. Melting was good.

The concept of sharing spit with someone had always been a little gross to Rodney, but he drank of John's mouth like a man dying of thirst.

His hands jumped to John's shoulders, pulling him in closer. That surprisingly firm and muscular body pressed back at him with equal fervor. Rodney had never been more aware of anything than he was John's hardness against his hip pressing through two tuxedos.

Tonight Rodney wouldn't have been able to pull back if the entire ship were there staring at them. It was John who finally drew back.

Rodney dragged in a breath that carried both John's tantalizing scent and the salt of the sea. His hand scrambled to his pocket, found his key, then he was fumbling with the door's lock. It opened with a loud creak.

The subdued deck lights pierced the room's darkness, casting a rectangle of dim half-light into the solid blackness of the room. He felt John follow him in, and then the door banged shut behind them, plunging the room into complete darkness.

John's night vision was obviously better than his own, for Rodney found himself gathered into another of those mind-altering kisses. He groped at John's slender back as they fed on each other's mouths, feeling John's hands moving up and down his spine.

Everywhere John touched, he left a trail of fire behind.

The utter darkness of the room was disconcerting. Rodney couldn't see a thing. Every touch came as a surprise out of the blackness, each caress enhanced by his inability to anticipate it. No matter where they moved, John's fingertips felt like they were hotwired to his groin. The shivery tingles they left behind flowed southwards, flooding his dick with sensation. He was hard as a rock already and they hadn't removed a single piece of clothing yet.

Still locked in that incredible kiss, John backed them unerringly towards the bedroom.

As he had all day, Rodney allowed himself to be led. He wanted this, so badly. He'd never tasted or touched anything as warm and inviting as John. John's body seemed to move into his touch, the way a plant's leaves would reach for the sun. It was such a change from the instinctive withdrawal Rodney was accustomed to receiving from Trent that he spent a long time just stroking his hands over John's tuxedo covered back and sides, delighting in the welcome he received.

His tuxedo jacket slid from his shoulders as John's hands moved over him. It was only as John shouldered out of his own jacket that Rodney realized that he probably should have done something about it, but John didn't seem put out or offended, not if the ardor of his kiss were anything to go by. John seemed to really enjoy kissing him.

"Mmmm," John hummed as they parted.

Rodney gulped in the cool oxygen, but it did nothing to ease the fire raging through him, not when John was standing there all flushed and sexy. It was only as he noticed that he could see how the kiss had affected John that he realized that there was more light in this room than the living room.

The porthole on the other side of the bedroom looked out over the sea. The moon had risen since their ferry had dropped them back at the ship. Rodney could just see its white form peeking up through the bottom of the round porthole. There was only a half moon tonight, but somehow it seemed brighter than any full moon Rodney had ever seen.

"Moonlight suits you," John whispered, his gaze moving from Rodney to the porthole, and then back again.

Rodney wondered if John were teasing him. He knew what he looked like. But John seemed earnest. More than that, John's eyes were almost hungry as they moved over him.

Rodney knew this man's reputation. More than that, he'd seen the effect John had on people. Sheppard could easily have a dozen lovers waiting for him in every port, and in all probability, did. It made no sense that John Sheppard would find anything attractive in what Rodney knew to be his own all too common looks. Yet, John was watching him as if he were Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and every hot movie star rolled up in one. It made no sense, but Rodney wasn't going to question this gift.

John dispensed with his own black bow tie, and then reached for Rodney's.

Rodney tried to play it cool, tried to act like John's other more-worldly lovers probably did and pretend that John undressing him was no big deal, but even the feel of those fingers doing something as mundane as opening the buttons on his crisp white shirt left Rodney trembling.

Not wanting to appear a total wreck, Rodney reached for John's shirt buttons. His fingers were shaking so badly that he could barely get hold of the little round fastenings. Rodney's own shirt was already undone and being eased off his shoulders, and he hadn't even gotten button one on John's undone. He felt like a complete idiot.

But John wasn't looking at him like he was an idiot. John's gaze was moving over his white undershirt as though he very much liked what he saw.

John's right index finger moved to ruffle the bit of chest hair peeking out over the neck of Rodney's summer undershirt.

"Haaa . . . ." Rodney gasped as the resulting sensations shook through him. Trying to pull himself together, he sharpened his attention to the best of his ability, and tried to force his fingers to comply with his will. He was a genius for Christ's sake. He ought to be able to handle a few buttons. "Sorry, give me a minute, I'll . . . ."

"I got it," John said in a soft voice.

Before Rodney could protest, John was leaning in for another kiss.

John's mouth was just as diverting as before. Rodney was drowning in those sweet depths as he sucked on John's lower lip. He wanted to start on that lip and make his way down every inch of this incredibly desirable man, but he wasn't going to be able to do that at all if he couldn't get the damn shirt open.

John's fingers slipped between his own useless digits to efficiently undo the recalcitrant button and then move on. A moment later, John slipped out of his shirt.

John's scent was all around him, clean and fresh for all that it had probably been twelve hours since he'd showered. There was a trace of faded aftershave, a bit of sweat, and another earthier aroma that was so warm and distinctive that it filled Rodney's being. That last had to be John himself.

Rodney ran his hands over the soft white cotton covering John's back. John was so slender, almost skinny, but Rodney could sense the strength in those lean muscles.

Their mouths fed on each other like kissing would be outlawed tomorrow and they had to get a lifetime's worth of it crammed into the few hours before dawn. Thinking that the sensual contact was truly going to liquefy him, Rodney gasped into the kiss as he felt John's hands move between them.

Rodney felt the fastening on his tux pants open and then his fly slid slowly down. John eased the zipper over his straining erection with palpable care. His trousers dropped to the floor, bringing up a crop of gooseflesh as the cool air hit his overheated skin.

Still locked in that kiss, Rodney was about to step out of his pants when he remembered his shoes. He'd never be able to get them through the pants legs. Rodney had no clue what the proper protocol was in this kind of situation. Stopping to wrestle his shoes off was going to make him appear a total klutz, but leaving them on would be even worse. He was already feeling self-conscious. John moved like a maestro here, nothing in his approach awkward or stumbling. The least Rodney thought he should be able to do was get his own pants off.

John's mouth slowly detached from his with something that sounded like a contented sigh.

Rodney watched in utter shock as John sank to his knees and reached for his right foot. He wobbled as John lifted it up to untie the lace of his black leather dress shoe. Reaching out, he braced himself with a hand to John's head. He'd been wanting to touch that unkempt fashion statement since he'd laid eyes on the man. That dark, riotous hair was softer than sable beneath his fingers.

Rodney watched as John removed his shoe and then peeled off his sock. Once Rodney's bare right foot was on the deck again, John moved to do the same with his left.

"I feel like Cinderella," Rodney tried to joke, nervous and excited under this unusual attention.

"Does that make me Prince Charming?" John cracked back.

Rodney stared down at that handsome, shadowed face, not knowing what to say. In all the years he'd been with Trent, there had never been a single night when Trent had taken this kind of care and time with him. He could no more imagine that busy deal maker bending down to take off his shoes like John was doing now than he could see Trent bringing him home to introduce him to his family.

His mouth running dry, Rodney swallowed hard. "Maybe you should ask me that when I'm not so . . . when you're not touching me, because right now the answer to that question would be a definite yes."

Rodney thought John would laugh at him, but the moonlight speckling John's face showed John's joking grin fading away. He couldn't interpret the emotion that took its place, but it didn't look like anger or mockery.

Both of his feet were bare now and back on the ground. Rodney waited for John to stand back up, but John stayed where he was, just staring up at him with an indefinable look on his face. After what felt like forever, Rodney saw John's Adam's apple bob and then John reached out to wrap his arms around his bare thighs.

Rodney's erection went from interested to frantic as John hugged his thighs and rested his cheek against his boxer shorts-covered, pudgy belly. Rodney shivered as John's moist breath played against his stomach as it passed through the placket of his boxers.

This wasn't a gesture that he'd encountered before, not that Trent had ever been all that experimental in bed, but to Rodney, the strange embrace seemed born of a need for comfort as much as desire. But why would this man who'd had more lovers than Rodney could even imagine need comfort from him?

Rodney knew that he'd never been good at offering solace. He just wasn't an empathic kind of guy. Still, something had obviously unbalanced John, and as inept as he was with emotions, Rodney really wanted to help. So, he reached down and rubbed the back of John's undershirt in what he hoped was a comforting manner. "Hey, are you okay?"

John's arms tightened around his legs and his cheek pressed deeper into Rodney's stomach. "Yeah."

It didn't feel like John was okay to him, but Rodney didn't force the issue, he just kept stroking those cotton covered shoulders.

After a few minutes, the desperate quality seemed to leave John's embrace. His arms loosened from around Rodney's hips and John lifted his head to look up at him. He seemed to be waiting for something.

Rodney didn't have a clue as to what, but from John's expression, it didn't look as though it were something good. Wanting to dispel this strange element so that they could get back to the fun stuff, Rodney let his right hand trail up from John's back to his hair, and just petted through the super-soft locks. He was still doing that when John's face collided with the front of his boxers.

This time the contact wasn't originated by a need for emotional comfort. John rubbed his cheek back and forth against Rodney's straining cock with feline sensuality.

The moan escaped Rodney's mouth unchecked. His shaft was so sensitized that he could feel John's beard stubble through the thin material of his boxers.

John stopped that incredible stroking all too soon. Barely able to breathe around his need, Rodney watched as John's hands took hold of his boxers' waistband and slowly lowered them down his legs.

"Can you get the shirt?" John asked in a thick voice.

Rodney could feel those eyes on his naked penis.

It took Rodney nearly a minute to translate John's request, he was too busy gaping at the beautiful man kneeling before him. This was erotic as all hell. John was almost fully dressed, wearing his tux trousers and undershirt, while Rodney himself had nothing but his undershirt on.

When the meaning finally registered, Rodney started. "Er, sure."

With even less grace than usual, Rodney pulled the remaining garment off and tossed it with the rest of his clothes onto the floor. Then he was standing naked before John.

Never had he been more aware of the flab around his middle. The moonlight seemed to accentuate the fat as it highlighted his fish belly white flesh. For the first time ever, Rodney would have been willing to trade his superior intellect for a bit more hair up top and a couple dozen less pounds around his waist. More than anything, he wished he could be one of those beautiful people John was always photographed with in newspapers. He longed to be able to move John the way John moved him. He knew it was a pathetic, hopeless dream, but Rodney couldn't help but want it.

Only . . . John wasn't looking at him as if he found him unattractive. John's hand reached for Rodney's stark white flab, lightly running his fingertips across the embarrassing softness as though it were hard, perfect abs. Rodney shook as John's fingers dipped down into the crisp brown curls below and carded playfully through them, and then . . . and then John collected his rock-hard cock into his palm and Rodney's reality melted around him.

John's touch was deft and sure, with just the right amount of pressure. The first squeeze John gave him was nearly enough to undo him; he was that gone.

"Mmmmm, you've got the most gorgeous dick," John whispered in a thick voice, looking up to catch his eyes.

Rodney felt his face heat. A gorgeous dick? Who said things like that? The only comments Rodney was accustomed to receiving about his body dealt with how much weight he was putting on. He didn't know how to respond to a compliment about his . . . cock, but the words sure as hell made him feel good.

"And look at these," John said, his left hand moving to support Rodney's balls, giving them an experimental squeeze that drew another strained moan from Rodney. "Soft and perfect."

The compliments were so out of his experience that Rodney would almost think that John was teasing him, only there was nothing mocking in that soft voice.

"You smell good too, really good," John added, and, as if the verbal strokes to Rodney's damaged self-image weren't enough, John leaned forward and rubbed his cheek against his pulsing cock again. Only, this time there was no cotton guarding his sensitive skin from that prickly beard stubble. The bristles scratched over his cock, sandpaper rough growth followed immediately by the super-soft skin of John's upper cheek. It was without a doubt the most unusual, intimate caress Rodney had ever received.

His legs turned to jello. Rodney's hands jumped to John's undershirt-covered shoulders as his knees threatened to give out on him.

Recognizing how close he was, Rodney grated out, "John . . . please, I'm going to . . . I haven't even seen you yet . . . ."

John pulled his face away from his groin with visible reluctance, looking up at him. "Do you want to move to the bed?"

"Either that or I'm going to melt onto the floor in a puddle of . . . ." Rodney broke off, unable to actually say what he'd been thinking.

But John seemed to get the gist of it. He grinned and said, "That could be kinda interesting."

"John, please . . . ."

"Okay, okay. Bed," John said with a nod, moving smoothly from his knees to his feet.

Rodney backed up the few feet to the bed and sank down onto it. He watched as John quickly stripped out of his undershirt.

Rodney couldn't help but admire how utterly graceful John was as he disrobed. There wasn't a trace of awkwardness or shame to his attitude, but, then, with a body like that, what would he have to be ashamed of?

Rodney stared at John's chest as he shrugged out of his undershirt. He hadn't expected the body hair. John's entire chest and tummy were coated in thick, dark hair that made Rodney's fingers ache to touch it.

As John bent to remove his shoes and socks, Rodney was relieved to see that his back was perfectly smooth. Although his sexual experience was pathetically limited, Rodney had seen enough miners without their shirts in the locker room to know that men with as much body hair as John often had hairy backs. He was glad that was not the case here.

John finally undid his fly and pushed down his pants and boxers in one smooth move.

Rodney sucked in a noisy breath as John's dark cock bobbed up when freed.

The hair didn't stop at John's stomach. His groin and thighs were also thickly downed, but it looked good on him. John had the slender, corded muscled body of a swimmer or runner. The hair fell in almost artistic patterns over those lean thighs, continuing down his legs. Rodney had never seen such a beautiful, masculine man.

John flashed him a bashful smile as he approached the bed. He laid his hands on Rodney's shoulders when he was close enough.

His stomach clenched as he looked up at John, totally overwhelmed by his beauty. Trent was an attractive man, but John was . . . John was exquisite. Rodney could barely breathe in the closeness. His heart was pounding like it would explode at any moment.

John leaned down to kiss him. As that sweet mouth robbed him of his remaining air, Rodney felt the room sway as if the ship were caught in some terrible whirlpool. John's hands pressed against his shoulders, pushing him down, and Rodney went with it.

Rodney was briefly aware of hundreds of those tiny chenille balls pressing into his back and butt, but then John's body settled carefully on top of him, and all he knew was John. For all that he was slender, John was heavy, but it was a good kind of heavy. Every inch of Rodney's body seemed to rejoice as that warm weight pressed into him. He didn't think his cock had ever been happier than it was with John's hard shaft nestled against it.

This was another position with which Rodney wasn't all that familiar. Trent liked to fuck, but he wasn't big on face to face. Rodney had always suspected that the intimacy of this position scared his lover. That John would just crawl on top of him like this and start rocking his whole body against him while submerged in this endless kiss was unreal.

The rhythm of John's hips was as perfect as everything else he'd done to him. His own body falling into sync with John, Rodney stroked his hands up and down that sleek back. John's hands were moving over his arms and sides, touching everywhere they could.

It was like a slice of heaven having that warm length blanketing him as John kissed and kissed him. The rocking of their hips was setting off these slow sensual charges that seemed to cumulate the delight. His entire body seemed to be shaking apart from the raw need rushing through him. He'd hungered for a touch like this his entire life.

The gentleness of this union was so shockingly hot that Rodney felt like he was turning to goo. He was certainly perspiring enough to be physically melting. A slick layer of sweat now coated him all over. Trent hated when he got slimy, but John's hands never even slowed down in their restless stroking.

John broke the kiss to gasp in some air. Instead of returning to Rodney's mouth right away as he'd previously done, John lowered his face to Rodney's neck and began nuzzling him there and then . . . and then John's tongue started lapping the sweat pooling in the hollow below his Adam's apple.

His neck was always his most vulnerable area. As that soft tongue licked behind his ear, sending incredible shivery, sensual convulsions through him, Rodney's body shuddered and tumbled over into orgasm. He sprayed spurt after spurt of his sticky seed between their tight pressed bellies.

Thought was a little beyond Rodney at the moment, but something in him recognized the fact that people usually did things to others that they enjoyed themselves, so he latched onto the tender, tasty skin behind John's utterly adorable, abnormally pointed ear and started sucking.

Less than a heartbeat later, John's body froze above him and more hot semen was added to the mess between their stomachs.

John came with a deep, satisfied groan, his fingers digging in deep on Rodney's arms.

John didn't roll immediately away once he was done. Rather, he shifted around on top of Rodney, settled back down with that puddle of sticky cum still between them, and turned his face to Rodney's for another kiss.

Even when sex was seriously challenging his mental capacities, Rodney was no idiot. Although he was stunned by the cuddling, he kissed back and didn't question the gift. John was just so amazingly affectionate in bed.

It was nearly fifteen minutes before John finally pulled back from the sleepy kisses to give a reluctant, "If we don't clean up, we're going to be stuck together."

Those kisses had apparently deprived his brain of more oxygen than he'd thought, for Rodney heard himself answer, "Sounds good to me."

John didn't tease or berate him for his gross sentimentality. Instead, that handsome face gentled and John softly said, "Yeah, but I think we'll both change our minds when we're crusty and itchy. Besides, if we clean up, we can do it again."

"Do it again?" Rodney echoed. It had been nearly five years since he'd had sex more than once in a night.

"Yeah. Don't you want to?" John asked.

Afterglow suited John. All the shadows were gone from his eyes and he seemed eminently approachable, so much so that Rodney found himself saying, "More than anything." Realizing how sloppy he was being Rodney flushed and said, "Sorry, I think you melted my brain. Ignore anything I say for the next half hour."

"I'm all for brain melting," John replied, his smile so blindingly sweet that Rodney didn't think he needed any touches for that incredible melting to start happening again. All John had to do was look at him like that and he was done for. "You're really something when you're inarticulate."

"A good something or bad something?" Rodney asked, worried because he knew he wasn't good at shielding his emotions at the best of times, and a man as worldly as John Sheppard probably wouldn't have any patience with how overwhelmed he was by this.

"Do you have to ask?" John questioned, that gentle expression still softening his face. John didn't make him answer, adding as Rodney racked his addled brain for the least embarrassing response, "It's good . . . really, really good."

"Oh," Rodney replied, too stunned to do anything but stare at John's handsome face. John thought sex with him was really, really good.

Rodney reluctantly let go as John rolled off him and sat up. He watched John reach for the tissue box that was on the nightstand next to his alarm clock. He was still so amazed that this beautiful man was here in bed with him that he could still hardly believe that any of this was real.

John took a wad of tissues and, before Rodney even realized his intent, leaned over and wiped the splattered semen off Rodney's belly first before tackling his own stomach. He was so sensitized to this man's touch that even the feel of the scratchy tissues over his stomach felt like a caress.

Rodney wondered if he should be embarrassed as he went hard again, but John's smile when he noticed his burgeoning erection told him it was all right.

"Mmmm," John said in that sensual hum that Rodney was beginning to love. "Like I said, really, really good."

John stroked his fingertips over his hairy inner thigh, making Rodney gasp and his entire body jerk off the bed in reaction. Rodney saw John's dark, messy hair lower over his groin, and, next thing he knew, he was being sucked into the wet heat of John's mouth. God, it had been so long since Trent had gone down on him that he'd all but forgotten how amazing it felt. The things John was doing with his tongue were fantastic.

Belatedly remembering that blowjobs could be a two way affair, Rodney pried himself out of his sensual stupor long enough to twist around on the bed until he was hunkered down over John's slender hips, eying that thick, dark cock.

He breathed in John's sweet musk, thinking that it wasn't fair that one man could look and smell this good. Then he opened up and swallowed John down. John's salty, clean taste swept through his veins as wild and powerful as the epinephrine he had to take after a bad allergy attack.

Pleased, Rodney felt John freeze around his own shaft and emit a shocked sounding gasp.

When he'd first started with Trent, Rodney used to be pretty good at this. Now all they did was fuck, but there'd been a time when they used to take their time learning each other. Those days might be long gone, but Rodney had a good memory. Drawing on every bit of talent he'd ever had, he twirled his tongue around John's circumcised cock. The shocked sounding moan that followed told Rodney he was doing something right, so he used the tip of his tongue to trace delicate patterns on that spongy head.

The sound John made this time was somewhere between a whimper and a moan. Stunned that he could make this worldly man make that kind of noise, Rodney let his imagination run wild and did everything to that thick cock that he could picture a man enjoying. He found the ultra-sensitive spot behind the flaring cock head and pleasured it to capacity.

It wasn't until Rodney stopped the tongue action and started sucking that throbbing shaft in earnest that John seemed to remember that he had a cock in his mouth, too.

Rodney moaned around John as John began sucking him. This was what sex was supposed to be like, Rodney realized, a mutual giving that brought you closer together. He didn't know if he'd ever experienced anything like this with Trent. In the beginning, he'd been blown away by the sex itself, but it had been forever since it had been good between them. As he sucked that beautiful cock, tasting the bitter preseminal fluid that seeped over his tongue, Rodney felt like he was experiencing sex for the first time all over again.

Trent had always said that he couldn't keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it, and once again, Rodney was proving him right. He knew he was making a ridiculous amount of racket as the sensations inspired by John's skillful sucking rocked through him. But he couldn't hold those mewing cries back, no matter how hard he tried. The pleasure throbbing through him was relentless. It laid his very soul right open and ripped the sounds out of him without mercy.

Rodney wondered if the noise he was making embarrassed John, but he realized after an especially loud exclamation that every time he made that kind of noise, John's cock seemed to jerk in response. On some level, Rodney recognized that it had to be the vibrations physically affecting John, that it had nothing to do with John actually liking the sound effects, but it was just so wonderful to be with someone who wasn't trying to silence him the whole time that Rodney was absurdly grateful. In fact, if he didn't know better, he'd almost swear that John was purposefully trying to inspire those sounds.

Rodney knew he was a sentimental idiot, but he really felt like what they were doing here was bringing them closer. He barely knew a thing about John, and, yet, he felt like he knew him on a cellular level now, like their bodies had been waiting hungrily all their lives for this union.

Rodney would have been happy if that were all it were – the sheer, physical relief of finding someone he had this kind of explosive sexual chemistry with after a lifetime of waiting. There was a whole other layer going on that terrified him. There was an emotional factor here that hadn't existed in even his initial unions with Trent. Rodney didn't feel like just his body was melting into John, he felt like his soul were seeping over as well. His whole life, Rodney had never felt like he fit in anywhere or truly belonged. But loving John like this, all those empty, aching places felt filled. That he would find that feeling of acceptance here with John Sheppard was incomprehensible.

Rodney knew how dangerous this was. Even if John weren't an infamous, international playboy, he was still a virtual stranger. What guy would welcome this kind of complication? Rodney knew how stupid he was being, but despite his best efforts, he could feel that infatuation he'd felt for John from the start deepening into something more, something that would send John running so fast that he'd see nothing but his smoking footprints to the door.

The pleasure peaked in a confusing blend of delight and despair, because even as he was shooting his seed deep into John's throat, Rodney was intensely aware that tonight was all he'd ever have, and that this was their second go round. Neither of them were teenagers. There would be no third time. Once they came, John would be out of his bed and out of his life, taking that sense of belonging with him, for, realistically, how could he ever fit into a man like John's world?

Rodney braced John's hips as they surged up at him, and swallowed the bitter, thick outpouring that tried to surge back up his throat around that impressive cock. Christ, even John's semen tasted great to him.

All too soon, it was over and that sweet post coital lethargy was seeping through him. John's deflated cock slipped out of his mouth, and Rodney felt John release his own limp shaft. Between the excitement of the casino trip today and the mind-blowing sex, Rodney felt utterly exhausted. He always conked out immediately after sex, but tonight was worse than usual.

Rodney felt the bed move. He was surprised to feel lips pressing against his own and a tongue trying to make its way into his mouth. More than half asleep, Rodney opened himself to the kiss, tasting the sharp, sour flavor of his own semen in John's normally sweet mouth. Strong arms tugged at his shoulders, and Rodney allowed himself to be turned around in the bed. The collarbone he found his cheek pillowed on was bony and uncomfortable, but he was so drained that he was only vaguely aware of being held before he was out for the count.

When Rodney opened his eyes some time later, he was unsurprised to find himself alone in the bed. The room was pitch black now. The moon that had illuminated the best sex of his life had moved beyond the porthole's perimeter, just as John Sheppard had moved beyond the perimeter of his life.

Though the moon would be back in his porthole tomorrow night, he knew John would never return. Guys like Sheppard didn't do more than one night stands. Love 'em and leave 'em was the credo of that type of man, and only a complete idiot would have allowed himself to believe otherwise for even the briefest of moments. Rodney knew he'd had his fairytale night of magic. The bell had struck midnight, and, like Cinderella, it was time for him to return to real life – which did not include being romanced by a man like John.

Even though he'd known this was how it would be, it still hurt like hell to wake up alone in a bed that still reeked of sex. He did it so often at home after Trent left that Rodney thought he should be used to it by now, but somehow, tonight felt worse.

Because John was gone for good. Because Rodney knew that there wasn't a thing he could do or say that would rekindle Sheppard's interest. He was never going to feel that kind of passion again, never feel that weird sense of belonging that had filled him when he was lying in John's arms lost in an endless kiss.

He wished John hadn't been so good. He wished the sex had sucked, that John had been a selfish lout like Trent instead of a dream come true. How unfair was it, to be granted your heart's desire, but only for one night?

The attention John had lavished on him, the tender way he'd touched him . . . Rodney was never going to forget any of that. Maybe it had all been just Sheppard's usual romantic MO, but Rodney had never experienced anything like it. Nor would he again. John was one of a kind.

Rodney bit his lower lip, his eyes stinging as he fought for control. He was not going to break down. He'd known the score going in. Hell, John had even warned him about getting too deeply involved. Of course, by the time John had noticed how infatuated he was, he was hopelessly smitten, but . . . John had tried. Rodney knew it had been his choice to go through with it, and, even though it hurt like hell now, he knew he wouldn't change a single thing . . . well, except the waking up alone part, he amended.

Rodney was still fighting for some kind of emotional balance when the sound of a toilet flushing thundered from the next room and stopped the breath in his chest. He was blinded as the bathroom door opened. Sharp electric light pierced the night black room. For a second, Rodney saw John's naked body under the bright lights, then John flicked the light off and the bedroom was plunged back into darkness.

Still holding his breath, Rodney wondered if he'd woken up just in time to watch John leave. In some ways, that was even a worse prospect than waking up alone. Having to watch a lover sneak out like a thief in the night as he abandoned you . . . that was worse, far worse.

Only . . . John didn't seem to be trying to locate his clothes on the pitch black floor. Surely, even a man like Sheppard wouldn't slip naked out of a lover's room, Rodney wondered, something that felt very much like hysteria bubbling through him. But John didn't seem to be heading for the door, either. Rather, he was making his careful, graceful way across the obstacle course their hastily discarded clothes had turned the bedroom floor into.

Barely able to accept what he was sensing, Rodney froze as John slipped into the other side of the bed. He could smell the floral scent of the soap the ship supplied on John as he finally took a breath, so he knew this was real. Fortunately, the soap's smell did not make him sneeze for once.

"You're awake," John said softly, sliding closer.

Rodney's heart beat triple time when a warm arm came out of the darkness to band his chest. Turning towards John, all he could see of him were the whites of his eyes.

"Are you okay?" John asked a moment later with an endearing mix of sleepiness and worry.

"You're . . . you're still here." Even Rodney could hear the shock in his voice. He hadn't meant to say it out loud, but as with most things, he had very little restraint.

The arm on his chest seemed to freeze as John wearily offered, "I can clear out now if you want me gone."

Want him gone? From the tone, it was clear John was expecting to be told to go. Rodney had always figured that John did the leaving in his affairs. It had never occurred to him that people might use and discard a man like Sheppard.

Recognizing that John was getting ready to go, Rodney forced his brain into gear and stammered, "Er, no. I – I thought you'd already left. That's all."

"No, I'm still here," the tightness in John's voice told Rodney that he still wasn't comfortable with his welcome.

Gulping loudly around the lump in his throat, Rodney quickly assured, "Good. That's . . . good. I, er, hate waking up alone, after – "

"I thought you and that guy were – " John seemed to think better about what he was going to say, for he quickly apologized with, "I'm sorry. That's none of my business."

Hearing that John had calmed some, Rodney took a deep breath that carried John's tantalizing scent, let it out, and told John, "He never stays afterwards. I always wake up by myself. I . . . hate it. It just never occurred to me that you'd want to hang around after we – I should probably shut up now."

The arm on his chest tightened. "You were right. I don't usually stay. I mean, I don't know why I didn't leave . . . well, that's not true. I, um, didn't want to go. That's why I stayed."

"You didn't?" Rodney couldn't hold back his question. He knew it was terminally pathetic to ask for that kind of reassurance, but he couldn't believe what John was saying. He wished there were more light so that he could see John's eyes, judge his veracity. He had no way of knowing if this were just a line John used.

John was silent for a long moment. Rodney could feel those nearby eyes staring into the side of his face. He wondered if John could see anything more of him in the dark than he could see of John. After a deep breath, John seemed to come to some kind of a decision. His tone utterly tentative, John said, "The people I usually sleep with are all players. The sex doesn't mean anything more to them than a night at the casino. You weren't like that. You were . . . the way you were with the art earlier."

"Huh?" Rodney asked. It sounded good, well, of course it was good, for whatever it was, it had kept John here, but he really didn't understand what John was trying to say to him.

"You let life touch you. You're . . . alive," John said, audibly self-conscious.

Responding to that uncertainty, Rodney said, "That's weird. I haven't felt alive in a long time."

John's fingertips brushed across Rodney's chest hair without moving the hand resting on his chest. Rodney gasped in reaction.

John's fingers stilled. Sounding like he'd just proved his point, John said, "Maybe you just needed to be reminded that you were. It's hard to be alive in a world full of zombies."

"Is that how you feel?" Rodney asked, unable to understand how someone as charismatic as John could feel that way.

"Most of the people I know, they don't care that they're dead inside. For a long time, I didn't either, but tonight . . . ."

"Yes?" Rodney encouraged, wondering if he'd fallen asleep and was dreaming this.

"I guess you just reminded me of everything I've lost. I . . . wanted to hang around to see if I could get any of it back, maybe get to know you better in the process," John explained, his nervousness and hesitation almost palpable. "That is, if you want me around. I, ah, know that with most guys a night in the sack is enough to – "

Shocked, Rodney realized that John was as uncertain as he was. It made no sense. Someone like John . . . who wouldn't want to be with him as long as John would tolerate having them around?

Recognizing how difficult this had to be for John, he quickly said, "I didn't think I had a chance of a second night with you. I want to get to know you better, too. So, don't worry about me wanting you around . . . that's sort of a given here."

Rodney knew he probably shouldn't have been that blunt. Trent hated when he blurted out things like that.

But, John seemed to relax beside him. "Did you want to do it again?"

Rodney considered the idea, took in the leaden exhaustion he still felt in every limb, and finally admitted, "Yeah, I'd like to. But I don't think it's going to happen for a few more hours yet."

John gave a musical chuckle. "Thank God. I'm dead, too. We'll just have to make it up in the morning."

"Okay," Rodney agreed. A flock of butterflies seemed to flutter through his insides as John leaned forward, gave him a quick, sleepy kiss, and then settled his head on the pillow next to him. A hairy leg covered Rodney's in a familiar, friendly fashion that was totally alien to him.

While Rodney lay there absorbing the scent and feel of having a lover spend the night, John seemed to fall quickly asleep beside him. Despite the oddness of sharing a bed, Rodney found that John's deep, steady breathing lulled his own nerves. Before he knew it, his eyelids were sinking shut on what had to be the best day of his life.

*~*~*

Life was strange. John had known it all along, but the last two days were driving that fact home to him with a vengeance. Since the moment he'd woken up in Rodney McKay's bed this morning, he'd been increasingly conscious of how weird the present situation was.

Rodney was like no one he'd ever known. John only had to look over to where his companion was bent over a display case in Nice's Archeological Museum to have that confirmed. While McKay's butt was nicely showcased in the brown trousers, and the green patterned button down shirt was totally acceptable casual wear, the huge straw hat Rodney was wearing was definitely not your every day fare. In fact, it was only just slightly shy of being ridiculous. The hat had been garnering stares all day, but Rodney seemed oblivious to the attention, or maybe Rodney had just figured people were looking at John himself. Rodney claimed that he'd burn to a crisp without the hat, and after seeing how utterly pale Rodney was naked, John was inclined to agree. But that didn't make the attention any easier to shrug off. He wondered if this were how his companions felt when people stared at him. Still, it was nice not to be the focus of every eye for once, even if he felt like he were dating the hat rather than McKay.

Of course, dating McKay was peculiar enough in its own right. First off, John didn't date men. A night or, at the most, two nights, and he was usually moving on. He saw his male paramours in the bedroom, and that was about it. He didn't take them to casinos or take them sight seeing, but here he was escorting the hat and McKay through Nice's hot tourist spots . . . and enjoying the hell out of it.

Though why, John couldn't say.

At least a dozen times today, John found himself questioning his sanity. Rodney McKay was . . . . well, just about the least cool person he'd ever met. Rodney didn't have a clue about fashion or popular trends. He didn't seem to be trying to impress anybody, which, in the end, ended up impressing the hell out of John. Even so, the guy simply wasn't his typical dating experience – or anyone else's for that matter. Not only was McKay a rabid hypochondriac, he whined about fifty percent of the time, over everything from how far they'd had to walk to how the cab ride had jostled him so much that his back had been thrown out to the current rate of exchange. But somehow, John found even those irritating traits amusing, and how bizarre was that?

Of course, the other half of the time, McKay was stealing his breath with his avid intellect and enthusiasm. John hadn't lied last night when he'd told Rodney that he was alive. He'd never met anyone with Rodney's joie-de'vivre. John suspected that his passion was why Rodney was so irritating. McKay was just as enthusiastic about his dislikes as likes, and, unfortunately, whatever the source of McKay's enthusiasm, it translated immediately into speech, speech that emerged sans forethought.

That complete lack of guile was another mixed blessing. Whatever Rodney thought or felt was immediately expressed. McKay was as open and unguarded as a child. Yesterday when they were in the casino, John hadn't been able to miss the way Rodney was looking at him. The expression had been more than infatuation and less than adoration, but far too intense a feeling for a one night stand. John had tried to warn Rodney off to spare him the pain, but Rodney had insisted it was worth the risk to him. John had known at the time that he should do the right thing and end it himself before it started, because Rodney wasn't a player and he was bound to get hurt, but when the moment had come, he hadn't been able to do it. In the end, he hadn't been able to resist the appeal of someone who liked him for himself, someone who treated sleeping with him as though it were the treat of a lifetime instead of the expected and, therefore, boring, outcome of social interaction. Walking away from Rodney last night would have been tantamount to kicking a puppy, and John simply hadn't been able to do it. So, he'd spent the night with Rodney, and what a night it had been!

John still couldn't believe that this prissy guy in the outrageous hat was the same man who had set him on fire last night. Rodney had been so open in bed, so unbelievably responsive, that John's own jaded senses had sat up and taken notice. He'd felt things last night with Rodney McKay that he hadn't felt since he was a kid. That being with him had meant the world to Rodney had been obvious from the start. What John hadn't expected was his own involvement. Rodney's unshielded joy at loving him had called to something in John that he'd feared long dead, and the sexual chemistry he'd found with this difficult individual was unprecedented.

Those unanticipated feelings had shocked him so much that they had left him unbalanced, clutching at Rodney's thighs in a desperate need for emotional grounding. John couldn't remember ever having anything happen like that before in his life. He'd been mortified by his own weakness, prepared for the scorn that most of the socialites he slept with would heap upon someone that pathetic . . . only, Rodney hadn't made a big deal out of his momentary breakdown of control or teased him. Hell, Rodney hadn't even questioned him on the embarrassing incident. Rodney had simply petted him and been quiet with him until John had found his balance. More than that, Rodney had continued to treat him exactly the same afterwards – as if he were the hottest, most wonderful thing Rodney had ever seen or touched.

The . . . graciousness with which Rodney had handled that whole incident and Rodney's acceptance were utterly unique in his experience, as unique as the man himself.

John couldn't remember anyone he'd ever felt so comfortable with. He'd even told Rodney about his love of art. It had been more than three years since he'd allowed himself to acknowledge his dream of painting. Most of the time when he went to a place like Casino Monte Carlo, John spent the majority of his visit attempting to ignore the art around him and block out its siren call on his soul. But Rodney's open appreciation of the beauty around him, the childlike wonder with which that intimidating intellect had taken in every new marvel had been too much like his own openhearted love of art.

Rodney's enthusiasm had stirred those yearnings John had fought for so long. He remembered how Rodney had picked up on his melancholy and questioned its source when they were in the casino bar yesterday. Unlike the few people who'd enquired in the past and had seemed bored or, worse, amused, Rodney hadn't dismissed his artistic aspirations and regrets as frivolous. No, it had been John himself who had laughed it off and changed the topic.

But Rodney had obviously remembered what he'd said about art being his first love. When John had proposed that they tour Nice together this morning, the first thing Rodney had suggested they do was visit the Musee des Beaux-Arts . . . for his benefit, John knew. Rodney had seemed content to spend most of the morning watching him admire artwork he hadn't seen since he was a teenager. Although Rodney had been appreciative of the paintings, he hadn't been half as excited by it as he was over the filthy clay pot fragments and rusty tools that the Archeological Museum offered.

John wasn't used to a lover indulging him that way. He'd slept with scores of attractive, fun socialites of both genders, but not one of them had ever visited a stuffy art museum just because it would make him happy. And that was probably the answer to the mystery of why he was attracted to this difficult man. Rodney wasn't simply using him. Rodney didn't care about his press, didn't want to show him off as though he were some exotic pet, didn't want to have his picture taken with him – well, that last wasn't exactly true. Rodney had been taking dozens of photos and asking other tourists to snap one of them together all day, but his new lover hadn't been trying to get those photos printed on the front page of the scandal sheets like so many of John's former paramours.

John focused as the hat moved toward his bench and grinned up at Rodney's sun-burnt face as he stopped before him. Rodney hadn't been kidding with that burning to a crisp comment. Despite the oversized headgear, Rodney had still managed to turn pink.

"The translation on that card over there is wrong," Rodney complained in an aggrieved tone. John knew his own sanity was totally forfeit because he thought Rodney looked as adorable as an outraged squirrel as he ranted, "I mean, it's bad enough that archeology isn't a real science, but can't the morons at least get their translations right? What's so hard about that? The scroll clearly says that the Emperor Auguste established Cemenelum in 14 BC as the regional center of the Alpes Maritimae, not the local center."

John refrained from rolling his eyes, asking instead, "Let me get this straight. You're Canadian, and you can't speak French, but you can correct mistakes in Ancient Latin translations?"

"Ah, yeah," Rodney said.

"You don't think that's a little weird?" John asked with a grin, like anything about this brilliant man wasn't weird.

"No. Latin was the only foreign language I paid attention to. Scientific nomenclature is all in Latin," Rodney explained.

"Oh. Of course. Well, that explains everything." Not surprisingly, Rodney totally missed the sarcasm. "You done here?"

Rodney nodded. They fell into step together and made for the exit.

It looked like the sun had just set when they left the museum, which was located at the centre of the Arènes et jardins de Cimiez park.

Rodney turned towards the orange and magenta tinted clouds on the western horizon and said, "This was another magical day."

Enjoying this man way too much, John answered, "I'm sure that baker in the stall in Cours Saleya is saying the same thing right now."

John was certain that the street was still echoing Rodney's shrill accusations that the stall owner had attempted to murder him. Death by citrus. It was a new one in John's book.

"It's his own fault. Who puts lemon in almond cookies? It was a good thing you smelt it. My allergies had my nose all clogged. I could have died on the spot," Rodney said. His intent gaze moved over the monastery garden they were wandering through in the darkening park. "This is so atmospheric. Do you think the flash will work in this light?"

"No," John answered. His reply would have been the same if it had been high noon. He didn't know who this Laura was, but Rodney had been giving the paparazzi a run for their money with his need to document his trip for her. John couldn't recall the last time he'd willingly posed for so many photographs. He doubted if Rodney would ever think along those lines, but John knew his lover now had enough candid photos of him to retire on, maybe even here in Nice.

"Oh. What did you want to do now – " Rodney's question was cut off by the loud blare of a boat horn.

"That's us," John said. "We'd better start back for the ship."

Rodney nodded, his gaze lingering on the shadowed fountain of the monastery grotto they were now exploring. "I didn't think I'd really enjoy sight seeing like this. But, it's so peaceful here. I hate to leave."

John glanced around. Rodney was right. It was beautiful in the deep shadows beneath the monstrously huge, ancient fig trees that guarded this spot. This little corner of the monastery garden was like a place out of time with its trickling fountain and fragrant herbs. Even the sounds from the rest of the park seemed oddly muffled behind the wall of hedges that separated the monastery from the park proper. For all the changes that had taken place here in the last two millennia, it could have been ancient Rome, the middle ages, or the turn of the twenty-first century.

Strangely enough, they had the area to themselves at the moment. They hadn't been anywhere all day that wasn't crowded with tourists.

Under the huge brim of that silly straw hat, Rodney's expression was unusually somber as he stared at the trickling, mossy fountain. Taking in the clean lines of Rodney's sun-burnt face, his slightly upturned nose, the mouth that was twisted down at the right corner, and the sad expression in those crystal blue eyes, John was overwhelmed with the urge to paint him. He couldn't remember the last time his hand had ached to put brush to canvas this way.

Rodney glanced over at him.

John didn't know what his face was revealing, but Rodney's expression grew concerned. "What? Are you all right?"

John wasn't sure how to answer that. He'd known this man three days, and the effects Rodney had had on his life were profound. He was making love instead of simply having sex for the first time in a decade. He was spending time with Rodney, not just to seduce him into his bed, but because he genuinely wanted to get to know the man. And now . . . now Rodney was reawakening his art. His urge to paint had been absent for so long that John had feared it dead. He hardly knew what to do with this rekindled yearning, but he was grateful for it, so damned grateful.

John took another quick glance around to confirm that they were still alone, and then reached out to lay his hands on Rodney's shoulders. Although all he'd really intended to do was touch Rodney to assure himself that he was real, when Rodney looked up at him with such visible concern, John found himself leaning in for a kiss.

The brim of the hat from hell nearly knocked him out, but he managed to duck under it before it did too much injury.

His move totally shocked Rodney; he could feel it in the suddenly tense muscles under his hands. But for all his palpable astonishment, Rodney's mouth softened under his and kissed him back.

John didn't know what it was about Rodney, but his kisses were nearly addictive. The instant they were sharing air like this, John felt light-headed and almost drugged, his body drawn to Rodney like iron filings to loadstone.

Distant laughter drifted in at them through the thick wall of vegetation separating the grotto from the rest of the park.

John reluctantly pulled back. Aware that kissing another man in a Roman Catholic church' s grounds in this ancient town wasn't the wisest action he'd ever initiated, John waited for his prickly companion to detail how reckless he'd been.

But Rodney simply stared at him. The sadness had left those remarkable eyes. They now seemed to be glowing.

"We, ah, better get back," John said.

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, looking like he didn't know what to say about what John had just done anymore than John did.

The cab ride back to the ferry was perforce a quiet one.

There was a decent crowd of passengers returning to the ship. Due to the winds that had blown up after the sun set, most of the other passengers were huddled on the more shielded, starboard side of the ferry. In comparison to Paris, New York, and London, the weather might be amazingly temperate, but it was still winter and even here on the Cote d'Azur the wind occasionally blew cold.

Rodney and he headed towards the empty stern by unspoken agreement.

John watched Rodney make a frantic grab for the hat as the wind tried to make off with it. Rodney missed it, but John snagged the thing before it went over the side and handed it back.

"Thanks," Rodney said in a hushed tone. Holding the straw monstrosity clutched to his chest, his eyes moved back towards the retreating town as they shivered at the stern rail.

As they stood side by side in the back of the boat, the wind ripped at their faces as they watched the lights of Nice grow smaller in the deepening darkness. John felt an odd pang clench his insides. He felt almost lonely. He wanted . . . .

It took him a few minutes to realize that what he was experiencing was the need to reach out to touch Rodney. He knew that it was suicide, that anyone could see. He also knew that he needed some kind of contact between them.

The urge was frightening. Since when did he need to touch someone? This wasn't him. He was cool and self-sufficient. He didn't need anyone. He only touched someone when he wanted sex from them, but this urge had next to nothing to do with arousal. It took him a few minutes to pinpoint exactly what it was about. For years now, there had been this lonely ache eating him from the inside out. Although he'd only known the man three days and it made absolutely no sense, touching Rodney somehow eased that emptiness. He'd had hundreds of lovers, what made Rodney so different, John didn't know. All he knew was what he felt.

Perplexed by the weird desire, John tried to fight it. He didn't want to need anyone. He'd learned a long time ago that when he depended on anyone, they inevitably let him down. His romantic failures were always the most painful. Every time he put a new lover up on a pedestal, he ended up crushed beneath the pedestal's weight when it crumbled. So, he didn't open his heart anymore. He played the game and tried to be content with the crumbs it offered, when all he really wanted was the kind of love his grandparents had had. But he'd been forced to recognize that that kind of love didn't exist anymore. Sex was just a game to people these days, with clearly defined rules of engagement. The most important one was complete noninvolvement.

Only . . . so far Rodney had been the exception to every rule he knew. From McKay's diverting that humiliating scene by putting that bigot in his place two nights ago to how Rodney had rolled with his kiss in the grotto without freaking out, Rodney had surprised him at every turn. Rodney seemed oblivious to the rules that governed John's own life. For all his whining and bragging, he was open and trusting . . . everything John was afraid to be.

It was weird as hell. McKay was the first lover he hadn't tried to put up on a pedestal, but Rodney was making his way up onto one without any help from him at all.

Looking at Rodney's absorbed profile, all he could see was gentleness. The guy was peevish and irritating as all hell, but under that prickliness, Rodney McKay was one of the most honorable, honest, decent men he'd ever met. Try as he would, he couldn't picture Rodney intentionally hurting him in any way. And if Rodney wouldn't intentionally hurt him, what did he really have to fear? Maybe it was all right to let himself need someone for just a little while. Rodney would let him down, everyone did, but until that happened, perhaps he could pretend for a while.

Almost terrified that this hard-won decision would be rejected, John leaned against the rail like Rodney was doing, hunching against the cold wind. He leaned closer to Rodney until their shoulders touched. John stayed where he was, trusting some of his weight to Rodney, waiting for him to remind him that they were in public and that a dozen of their shipmates could see them.

Rodney pulled his gaze from the shore to look at him, but didn't say anything.

When the silence stretched so long that it got on his nerves, John decided to give Rodney an easy out by bringing the subject into the open. "Am I . . . making you uncomfortable?"

Rodney seemed almost bemused as he answered, "No, I, er, like it. I liked what you did in the grotto, too."

John gulped and tried to explain, "I'm not . . . I don't usually do things like that."

"You don't?" Rodney looked more pleased than when he'd won that small fortune last night at the roulette table.

"No. I'm usually . . . well, you've read the papers," John said. It wasn't until after he'd spoken that he realized that the stunt he'd pulled in the grotto was exactly the type of indiscretion the press always accused him of. In reality, he was very careful about where he fooled around, far more cautious than he was about who he fooled around with.

"You're not that guy in the papers," Rodney said in a fierce, nearly protective tone. He sounded completely confident.

That . . . faith, for want of a better word, stopped John cold. "You've only known me three days. How can you be so sure?"

"You mean aside from the fact that I'm a genius?" Rodney asked.

John wondered if Rodney were using his ego to purposefully defuse the tension. Whatever his motive, the arrogant assertion worked like a charm. John felt himself relaxing, even as he responded, "Yeah, aside from that. For all you know, everything I've told you could be a line."

Rodney's expression turned serious as he held his gaze and questioned, "Was it?"

Rodney was trusting him to give an honest answer, like if he were using him, he'd really confess to it.

John gave a negative shake of his head. "No, but that's not the point."

"Then what is the point?" Rodney asked.

God, the man was infuriating. John took a deep breath of the sea air and answered, "You really have no way of knowing that. You don't know anything about me – "

"Maybe, but I know about that guy in the papers," Rodney said.

"Huh?"

"I'm not rich. I'm not famous. I'm not . . . well, we both know I'm not going to be gracing any magazine covers with my looks. Do you think that international playboy would waste his time with me? Johnnie Sheppard wouldn't give me the time of day," Rodney spat out the nickname the papers had given him with the same contempt John had for it. "I mightn't know exactly what you are, but I sure as hell know what you're not."

John sucked in a shocked breath, his entire being jolted by Rodney's words. The only other person who'd ever had that kind of unconditional faith in his character was his grandmother.

Not knowing what to say, he averted his gaze to the dark, choppy water.

A few minutes later, Rodney asked in a tentative tone. "Did I, ah, say something wrong?"

John looked back at the sun-burnt, visibly shivering man at his side.

Rodney continued talking in a fast, nervous voice, "I know I'm bad with people. I never know what the right thing to say is. I talk too much and – "

"You didn't say anything wrong," John quickly assured.

Rodney was just too honest to let the issue drop. Still seeming worried, he said, "But you looked so . . . ."

John had no idea what his expression had been betraying. Rodney clearly couldn't define it either.

"You know that bad with people merit badge you said you'd aced?" John asked. "Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

"Huh?" Now Rodney simply appeared confused. It was an improvement over the worry.

"You said the right thing," John assured. "In fact, you said the perfect thing."

"Oh."

John couldn't tell if Rodney were blushing or if it were simply his sun-burn.

The ferry reached the ship about then, so the conversation was put on hold.

Nothing had been said about John spending the night again, but he followed Rodney back to his cabin. Rodney seemed pleased when he didn't continue down the deck to his own quarters.

Rodney turned on the overhead as they stepped inside, illuminating the tasteful cabin.

"Did you want some time to yourself?" John checked. Ever the optimist, he closed the door behind him.

Rodney had apparently never learned the rule about playing it cool, for he gave a quick and earnest, "No. I was hoping you'd want to stay."

Where two nights ago Rodney's lack of artifice had unnerved him, tonight John was grateful for it. He knew where he stood with Rodney in a way he never had with any other lover.

Rodney put the straw horror on the end of the coffee table and lowered the overstuffed rucksack he'd been hauling around all day down on the floor beside it.

"I need a shower," Rodney said. "I'm a mess."

Wanting to remove the day's sweat himself, John said, "I could use one, too. Would you like some company?"

"You, er, want to shower with me?" Rodney asked in a tone that made it plain he'd never bathed with a lover before.

It didn't seem like that fool Rodney had spent the last five years with had taken advantage of the gifts this open-hearted man gave so freely. John wasn't about to waste a minute with Rodney. So, he grinned and said, "Yeah, if you don't mind sharing?"

Once again, Rodney gave him a victory that any other man would have made him work for. "I like sharing with you."

"Great," John said, unbuttoning his blue shirt and then shrugging out of his undershirt.

Rodney seemed mesmerized by the sight of his hairy chest being unveiled. The open admiration was disconcerting. He'd had tons of lovers who'd wanted to sleep with him because of his looks, but Rodney was the first who seemed surprised by his appearance.

"You saw me naked last night," John reminded.

"But not in the light," Rodney said. "I guess a lot of people tell you that you're extremely . . . well, attractive isn't quite right. Perfect.is probably more accurate."

Rodney sounded as though he were stating scientific fact, rather than sweet-talking a lover. It was more than a little humbling to realize that Rodney did see it as fact rather than exaggeration.

John thought he was going to have to have his throat checked when they reached America. It kept tightening up on him so badly that he couldn't even swallow. Working around the obstruction, he softly answered, "Not as many as you'd think. Any chance I can see you in the light? Showers work better without clothes."

His grin didn't seem to affect Rodney, who abruptly appeared nervous. John didn't understand what that was about. They'd been naked together last night and touched each other all over, but Rodney was acting almost embarrassed as he fumbled open the buttons on his green-print shirt and then removed his undershirt.

"I, ah, don't get enough exercise," Rodney offered in a nervous tone.

John was so busy admiring the pink buds of nipples poking out through Rodney's artistically feathered chest hair that the words barely made sense to him. "What?"

"Trent's always telling me that I need to diet. I know he's right, but. – "

Finally understanding the source of Rodney's uneasiness, John stepped into his personal space, fingering one of those tempting pink buds as he said, "Trent is an idiot. You look great."

"I'm thirty pounds overweight with a receding hairline," Rodney said in that same stating-scientific-fact tone.

John knew how the hair loss bothered Rodney. He'd seen him fussing to cover the top of his forehead this morning when Rodney hadn't thought he was looking.

"That high forehead makes you look even smarter," John corrected. "You've got the bluest eyes I've ever seen, and the sexiest chest. As for the extra few pounds . . . you're the first lover I've had in forever whose hips don't bruise me. I like you, Rodney. I really like you."

"You, ah, aced the saying the right thing merit badge, didn't you?" Rodney asked, his self-consciousness no longer quite so apparent.

"Maybe. But you were right the first night. I'm good with a line. Only . . . this also happens to be true."

"Do you make everyone feel this good?" Rodney asked.

"It's sort of a mutual thing, don't you think?" John answered with a question of his own.

"What do you mean?" Rodney appeared genuinely confused.

"Do you think anyone else has ever told me I'm perfect and meant it?" John questioned, holding those bright eyes.

"Well . . .yes. I figured everyone you've been with would have . . . I mean, look at you. You're not just good looking; you're kind and smart, too. What more could anyone ask for?" That Rodney meant every one of those words was obvious.

That throat problem attempting to choke him again, John swallowed hard. "Rodney, I'm not . . . ."

"You're not what?" Rodney questioned when John's words failed him in the face of Rodney's open admiration.

From what Rodney had told him, John knew that he'd lived a pretty sheltered life. Thinking that he owed this man the same kind of honesty Rodney gave him, John swallowed hard and said, "Even the people I've slept with consider me little more than a gigolo."

John had known it would happen, but it still hurt to see Rodney's eyes harden.

"They're wrong," Rodney said. He was half dressed. The indignant fury should have been ludicrous as Rodney stood there next to the living room couch in his brown trousers, his sun-burnt face and arms a bright contrast to the pallor of the rest of his skin. But somehow, 'ludicrous' was the last adjective that came to mind as John looked at him as Rodney continued, "And you shouldn't talk about yourself that way. You're the coolest guy I've ever met. You're bright; you're cultured; you're fun. You don't let cowards tell you how to live your life . . . you're everything most people wish they were. So, don't let those bigoted idiots sell you that line of crap."

John could barely believe what he'd heard. Three days . . . this guy had known him three days. Maybe infatuation and the sex had blinded Rodney to reality, but just hearing someone defend his character that way . . . .

John had never thought his ego needed any bolstering, but Rodney's faith in him felt like it was healing every one of the wounds left by too many malicious newspaper articles.

Rodney reached for him. To his bewilderment, John allowed himself to be drawn into an embrace that, for all that they were half naked, had nothing to do with desire.

The heat pouring off Rodney was amazing. He was hot as a furnace. And he smelled so good. Rodney's skin carried the fragrance of salty sweat, sunshine, and Rodney's own sweet scent. Still not sure about this hugging thing, John tentatively rested his cheek on Rodney's shoulder and breathed him in deep.

Rodney's hands settled on his back. His right palm began rubbing in wide, calming circles. John heard him say in a low voice, "I can't believe you'd think something like that about yourself."

Seduced by that soft stroking, John leaned more of his weight onto Rodney. He felt the other man's body shift around him to readily accept it. He wasn't used to relying on anyone's strength but his own, any more than he was used to someone respecting him.

John allowed himself to be held and petted that way for quite some time. Becoming more and more aware of Rodney on a physical level, he pushed his hips against Rodney's, simultaneously nuzzling Rodney's neck in the place that had seemed to drive him wild last night.

Tonight was no different. Rodney gasped like he'd never been touched before, his hands tightening on John's back.

John slipped his hand down between them, stroking over that moving hardness in Rodney's trousers to very satisfying vocal accompaniment. John didn't know whether to classify the pleading sound as a moan or a whimper. All he knew was that it made his insides twist with need.

Rodney's breaths were coming in pants now and his gaze was delightfully unfocused. Even without those amazing character endorsements, Rodney was good for his self-esteem. He couldn't get enough of the incandescent pleasure glowing on Rodney's sun-burnt face. Rodney looked as though just John's hand brushing over his penis had been enough to transform his reality. John had slept with movie stars and models, but he didn't think he'd ever seen anything as beautiful or captivating as the blown away expression on Rodney's face.

Hungry for his taste, John kissed him. Rodney's mouth opened to him at the first swipe of his tongue. That intoxicating flavor filled John's being and for a long, breathless time, they both seemed content with trying to learn each other by taste.

John slipped his hands between them and undid Rodney's trousers. Snagging the boxers as well, John broke the kiss and knelt to ease them down Rodney's legs, the same way he had last night. As Rodney's hands slipped into his hair, John dealt with unlacing and removing his lover's shoes and socks. Once those pale, sweaty feet were resting on the living room rug, John guided them out of the pants pooling at Rodney's ankles.

While down there, John dealt with baring his own feet, undoing his pants as he rose back up to claim Rodney's mouth in another hungry kiss.

The shock of the press of their naked bodies exploded through him as he leaned back into Rodney. As their groins nestled together with careful eagerness, John felt Rodney's hands tighten on him. Still locked in the kiss, John backed Rodney out of the living room, homing in on that big, comfortable bed in the next room.

Rodney stopped moving as the edge of the mattress brushed the back of his bare thighs. John gave him a little nudge, easing him down onto the bed. He followed Rodney down, ending up on top of him after some fast, cautious shifting.

"Mmmm, I thought we were going to shower," Rodney said, finally breaking the kiss. He was running his hands up and down John's spine as though he couldn't get enough of touching him.

"Later," John said, leaning back a little to survey Rodney's body and decide where he wanted to start.

"But I've been sweating all day – " Rodney began to fret.

"You taste great. You smell better," John murmured, going for that delectable neck again.

The strange part was that Jon's words weren't just a line. They'd both been sweating under the Mediterranean sun all day, but, although undeniably fragrant, Rodney smelled great to him.

"Oh . . . god," Rodney moaned as John began to nuzzle his neck.

John let his tongue peek out to sample the flavor of the milky skin. Last night Rodney had tasted clean and fresh, with just the slightest remnant of the soap from his shower. But tonight Rodney's skin was a salty, sweetish treat everywhere he licked. He'd never thought he'd get off on the taste of another guy's dried perspiration, but Rodney's flavor rushed through his system like a potent aphrodisiac.

John worked his way down Rodney's neck, licking and nibbling that ghostly white flesh, licking the hollow of his throat, kissing and nipping until he reached the light brown chest hair. Rodney wasn't nearly as hirsute as John himself, but he had a healthy, wide, very masculine chest.

John's mouth homed in on the nearest nipple. Rodney was salty even here. John sucked the pert pink bud to instant hardness. The groan Rodney released at that sounded as though it were pulled from the depths of his being.

Squeezing the other nipple between his fingertips while he sucked on the nearest one, John pleasured Rodney until he was an incoherent, whimpering wreck.

"I've . . . barely . . . even . . . touched . . . you . . . yet," Rodney grated out when John paused to consider his next move.

John looked up at Rodney's sun-burnt face. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been with anyone who'd been concerned about reciprocating. The heightened color in his cheeks made Rodney's eyes all the bluer. He looked blown away by what John was doing to him, but, more than that, he looked . . . beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful, and strangely innocent, innocent in a way no one he had ever been with had been innocent, John thought, something in him breaking as he took in Rodney's expression.

"Sssssh," John soothed, brushing his fingertips over Rodney's saliva-slick nipples, feeling the helpless crop of gooseflesh that popped up after his gesture. "Just let me touch you, please?"

Rodney nodded, his expression seeming to suggest that his answer would have been the same if John were asking if it were all right if he ripped his heart out of his chest.

John lowered his head and spent some more time worshipping those pebble-hard nipples. When he thought Rodney couldn't take any more there, he followed the inverted arrow of chest hair down Rodney's ultra-soft, fleshy belly to that cache of crisp, light brown curls. Rodney gave a prolonged moan as John nosed through the fragrant curls that were so close to the epicenter of that fantastic Rodney scent. John didn't think he'd ever been this turned on by another guy's smell.

John's own cock was getting harder and more demanding by the second as he took hold of Rodney's pink shaft. It fit his hand as though it had been specially designed for him; in fact, everything about Rodney naked fit him.

The gasp Rodney released as John gave the flesh in his palm a light squeeze had a sympathetic effect on his own organ. Just touching Rodney was turning him on faster and harder than most other lovers' touches did. That was probably because he'd never had anybody this responsive to him. Rodney was shaking and trembling like even these initial caresses were the most erotic things he'd ever felt.

John lowered his head and sucked that meaty cock in. Rodney's warm, tangy taste filled him the way his scent had. John slurped down the clear liquid seeping from the slit at the top of Rodney's circumcised cock, loving everything about him.

Rodney's fingers locked in his hair. John wouldn't have blamed him if he'd pulled his head down for deeper contact, but Rodney just seemed to be clinging to him for dear life. John opened wide and deep-throated him, his lips trying to smile around their visitor as Rodney gave a shocked shout.

Glad that he'd always had a flair for this particular act, John bobbed up and down over Rodney's salty shaft, wringing every bit of pleasure he could out of him.

John rolled those velvet-soft balls in his right hand, driving Rodney absolutely wild. When he thought Rodney had had enough of that, he allowed his fingers to stroke over the damp perineum behind those lovely testicles.

Rodney whimpered, spreading his thighs wide as he begged, "Please . . . ."

There could be no doubt what Rodney was asking for.

John paused in his ministrations, lifting his head up to stare down at Rodney's face.

If the pleasure shining in Rodney's features had been incandescent before, it was nearly blinding now. It seemed to offer him anything and everything he could ask for.

John gulped and tried to find a way to explain that this wasn't exactly what he'd planned. "I, um, don't usually ask for things I'm unwilling to give myself."

Rodney blinked, making a visible effort to focus his attention. After a long moment, his eyes seemed to sharpen in understanding.

John waited for Rodney to tell him to get his finger away from his asshole if he weren't man enough to reciprocate, but Rodney didn't say anything of the sort.

"That's okay," Rodney said. "I still want you to . . . that is, if you want to . . . ."

Rodney sounded like he was scared John wouldn't want to, or that maybe he might be put off by the idea.

That throat condition attempting to choke the life right out of him again, John gulped and rasped out. "I want to. It just doesn't seem fair for me to if I don't let you – "

"Hey, not everyone likes everything. I . . . really like that," Rodney said in the tone of a confession, the hunger in his eyes letting John know that he meant the words.

"Oh," John stammered, happily surprised. This was normally where the roadblocks came up in his previous affairs with men. Thinking that he owed Rodney some more of that truth his new lover kept giving him, John hesitantly explained, "Most of the guys I've been with . . . they just want to screw me. It's all they usually want."

Rodney nodded as if he fully understood. His next words told John that he did, on a visceral level. "Trent's like that, too. If he can't be on top, he doesn't want to bother with anything else."

John tried to swallow around the golf ball-sized lump in his throat. The last thing he wanted was to be in the same boat as that selfish prick. "Maybe we shouldn't do it, then. I don't want to be like him."

Rodney's hand slipped down from where it was buried in John's hair to cup his cheek. When he spoke, his words were as gentle as his expression. "You could never be like him. You've touched me more and given me more pleasure in two nights than he has in five whole years. I want to do this with you. I want to do everything we can in the short time we have together." Rodney's hand left John's face. He turned on his side a moment to open the nightstand drawer and pull out a little glass jar of Vaseline, which he then held out to John. "I, ah, put this in here the night you asked me to go to the casino with you because I hoped we'd . . . that you'd want to . . . ."

John stared down at the small jar that was unceremoniously thrust into his hand. "You . . . ah, wanted this . . . from that first time we had dinner?"

Rodney appeared self-conscious, of all things. "I, er, know it's not really cool to admit it, but . . . yeah, I wanted it. From the first night."

John wondered if they could hear his resulting gulp out on the deck. It sounded that loud to his own ears. The golf ball had transformed into a basketball. John swallowed around it as best he could and said, "I don't know. I think that might just be the coolest thing anyone's ever said to me."

"Really?" Rodney's sun-burnt cheeks seemed to turn an even darker red.

"Really," John assured.

"So, we're, er, going to – " Rodney began.

John nodded and leaned up to kiss Rodney. As happened every time they put their mouths together, the kiss grew deeper. John found himself squirming up to settle on top of Rodney again, the little jar in his hand digging into Rodney's shoulder as he attempted to crawl into his lover's body via their joined mouths.

When they finally broke for breath, John pulled himself back up to kneel between Rodney's splayed thighs. "Um, how did you want to do this?"

"Face to face?" Rodney suggested in a tone that sounded like he was braced for a denial.

John figured that that Trent prick probably wasn't big on anything that involved meeting someone's eyes. Holding that hopeful blue gaze, John smiled and said, "I was hoping you'd say that."

It was indecently easy to make Rodney happy. His lover looked like John had just handed him the moon and the stars.

Realizing that their conversation had cooled both their ardor some, John repossessed Rodney's shaft. Working the moist length in his fist, he bent down to add a little suction to the mix, driving Rodney insane, were the resulting sounds anything to go by. He hadn't known that a person could simultaneously whimper and moan.

John belatedly realized that he was making his own appreciative sounds as Rodney's rich flavor spread through him. Getting Rodney all hot and bothered seemed to have a sympathetic effect on his own flesh because, without even laying a hand on himself, John was at full mast seconds after tasting Rodney.

John serviced that lovely cock until it was more than ready for completion. Only then did he take his hands off Rodney long enough to open the little jar he still held clutched in his sweaty left hand. He fumbled the lid off, sank the fingers of his right hand deep into the glutinous depths, and withdrew a generous amount, which he held until it warmed some.

Rodney was right with the program and helpfully lifted his legs up to his chest to open himself to him.

The sight of that round, ultra-pale butt stopped John in his tracks for an appreciative moment. Rodney mightn't think himself much in the looks department, but John had rarely seen a more fetching bottom. Rodney's ass was sheer perfection, big enough to fill his hands, but not overly padded.

Thinking that Rodney's self-esteem could use a little fortifying when it came to his appearance, John reached out with his unsticky hand to stroke that incredibly soft whiteness and said, "You've got the most beautiful ass I've ever seen. Seriously, it's . . . choice, really fine."

Rodney looked up at him, gulped noisily and said, "I bet you say that to all the geniuses you sleep with."

"Nope, not a one of them had your ass. Just for the record, none of the morons I've known have, either. It's one of a kind," John said, loving how adorably flustered Rodney was looking at the moment.

John let the hand petting Rodney's butt slip down between those perfectly shaped globes. Rodney hissed in a prolonged breath as his hand explored the dark mystery of the cleft between his cheeks.

John brought the Vaseline-covered fingers of his other hand into the equation. Finding that tight-budded opening, he rubbed his gooey middle finger against the hidden entrance, making Rodney's hips buck up at him in reaction. John pushed through the clenched guarding muscle, barely able to believe the hot tightness that closed around his finger. Rodney felt almost virginal around him.

"You have done this before?" John checked.

Seemingly absorbed by whatever sensations John's finger was inciting inside him, Rodney answered in a breathy rasp, "Yeah. It just takes a while for me to relax enough to . . . you know."

John nodded, grateful for the information. He eased his finger further in, circling it around the slick passageway. Rodney's body was squeezing his finger like he'd never been touched there before. It was an amazing feeling.

Pressing a little further in, John encountered the rounded protrusion he'd been searching for. The instant he pressed against that hidden nub of flesh, Rodney's entire body arced up off the mattress with a shocked outcry.

John took his time pleasuring that spot, driving Rodney utterly insane. He'd never made a lover actually writhe with delight before, but there was no other description that fit the way Rodney was shifting his head back and forth on the white pillowcase and squirming around.

By the time John was done, his index finger was able to easily slide in beside his middle finger in the much more relaxed channel. John scissored his fingers, gently stretching the opening, making certain he hit Rodney's prostate at irregular intervals to give him an added level of sensation.

Finally, Rodney felt loose enough to allow actual penetration. John slowly withdrew his fingers, secured another helping of Vaseline, and slicked it over his own straining cock. He hadn't realized how close he was to the edge himself. It was all he could do to keep from coming at the touch of his own hand, but he managed to hold back.

John took hold of Rodney's buttocks and parted them to reveal his objective. Rodney's entrance was a dark bud hiding in the shadows, frighteningly small. Looking at the opening to his lover's body, it appeared almost too tiny to accommodate something the size of his cock.

Squelching his panic, John hooked Rodney's legs over his shoulders, positioned himself above that tiny opening, and carefully pushed home. For all John's worries, Rodney's body seemed to melt around him, welcoming him like he'd been waiting his entire life for John's cock to be inside him.

Although the resistance was minimal, Rodney's tract closed around his penis tight as a sword's sheath. The living heat surrounding him was unreal. John felt like he was going to come from just that alone. Getting a hold of himself, he nudged a little deeper, feeling the head of his cock make contact with that protuberance that had rocked Rodney's world earlier.

Rodney loosed a pleading sound that was the epitome of tortured delight.

John withdrew from inside Rodney and carefully re-entered, making certain he hit that organic pleasure button on the way back in. Rodney's fingers dug into his shoulders like he were attempting to keep himself from falling off a bottomless cliff.

That was sort of how it felt to John, like they were dancing on the edge of some endless chasm that would swallow them both if they weren't careful. The problem was John had never known the definition of the word careful. On his second thrust inwards, so much unexpected pleasure rocked through his system that it literally blew him away. He'd never felt this much with anyone. Rodney made him feel tinglingly alive from the tips of his toes to the crown of his head, and all places in between. His body was thrumming with desire and need, each heartbeat and ragged breath seeming to be in perfect sync with Rodney's.

John moved in and out, bringing them higher and higher up that wild cliff face with every thrust. There was no bottom, no safety net. Sooner or later, they were going to fall, and that drop was going to be lethal. John had never been this high or excited in his life, and, from the way Rodney's fingers were clinging to him, he suspected the same was true for his lover.

The scariest part of the whole thing was the fact that John's heart felt like it were dangling over a similar precipice. Since his early teenage years when the first boy he'd given his heart to had taught him the transitory nature of love, sex had been a solely physical experience for John, like surfing or skiing. It was something he enjoyed greatly, but his heart always remained safely on the sidelines, his emotions never coming into play. He was always prepared for the moment when his lover's pedestal would crumble, always uninvolved and ready for the inevitable goodbye.

Tonight, John couldn't find a single barrier to hide behind. Rodney was completely open, both physically and emotionally, and, despite his best efforts, John felt himself tumbling into him. Every thrust seemed to bring them closer together. John felt like he was merging with Rodney on every level possible as he took him, their bodies and souls melting together under the blast of carnal heat. It should have terrified him, only, it felt like coming home.

There was no safe distance inside him, no aching loneliness. There was only the bright heat that was Rodney McKay, and that blinding sensation was filling every cell of John's body with hope and a welcoming warmth such as he'd never known. John tried to resist, tried to fight it, but . . . how did you deny something you'd hungered for your entire fucking life?

His resistance crumbled under Rodney's irresistible appeal, and John went spiraling off that emotional precipice. Only, Rodney was right there with him during the endless fall, shielding him from all the sharp, painful rocks with his body.

Totally lost in Rodney, John opened his eyes as he came.

Rodney was watching his face, looking like he was memorizing every one of John's expressions. John saw his eyes widen as Rodney tumbled over into orgasm.

Their eyes locked in that frozen moment of utter ecstasy. Without a single word being spoken, John could see that it was the same for Rodney, that he was just as stunned, just as scared, and just as helpless against this overwhelming feeling.

It felt like he came forever, spurting pulse after pulse of his liquefied being into Rodney as Rodney's cock showered both their chests with his sticky, hot gift. They hung there at that apex of sensation for an eternity.

Then, just as abruptly as he'd ascended those terrifying heights, John found himself bottoming out as the sensation cut off, leaving him tingling with a lethargy that was more than afterglow. As he collapsed down against Rodney's chest, he felt as though his bones truly had melted.

Rodney's arms and legs closed around him, holding him close even as John's deflated penis slipped out of him.

John hadn't a clue as to what he should say. There was a terrified part of him that knew this was too much for him to handle. Those preservation instincts were urging him to run for the nearest exit, only his heart was insisting that he stay right where he was. It was terrified, too, terrified that he'd lose what he'd found here with Rodney and never experience anything like it again.

For once, his heart won out over self-preservation. John stayed exactly where he was, knowing almost the exact moment Rodney conked out on him. He was less aware of his own surrender to sleep. All he knew was that something momentous had happened in this bed, something that felt like it might change him forever. He was still worrying about what form those changes might take when Morpheus claimed him.

*~*~*

The ringing phone sounded louder than an air raid siren. It blared through the quiet cabin, filling the room with an aggravating noise that was impossible to ignore.

Rodney's eyes snapped open. His hand moved to grab the offending phone, but the damn thing was on the far side of the bed. All he managed to do was bang John's shoulder. As he watched, John's hand snagged the phone.

Looking more asleep than awake, John gave a bleary, "H'lo?"

"Rodney?" Laura's unmistakable voice crossed to where Rodney lay trying to untangle himself from the sheets.

"Er, no. He's, um, here he is." John's sleepy gaze landed upon him and he handed him the black receiver.

"Hello?" Rodney said, looking at the bedside alarm clock to check the time. Eight AM. He supposed he was lucky Laura had waited this long, considering the time difference.

"Rodney?" Laura sounded completely uncertain. It was a new sound for his self-confident friend.

"Hi, Laura," he greeted, smiling a little as John's sleepy attention focused at the name. He knew John was very curious about his relationship with the Becketts. Rodney tried to focus on Laura and ignore how utterly adorable John looked with his hair poking out in a dozen more directions than usual. He really loved waking up with John.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked.

"Ah, no. We were just . . . sleeping." Belatedly realizing that he probably shouldn't have said 'we', for all that Laura was aware of his sexual orientation, he tried to cover with, "I mean . . . oh for . . . I'm not awake yet. You're not going to get much sense out of me until I've had some coffee."

She giggled and asked in what no doubt passed for a whisper to her, but was probably totally audible where John was lying a foot away, "Was that John Sheppard?"

"Yes," Rodney said, wondering whether John would mind his saying so.

"I guess I can't ask you anything good right now, then?" she sounded utterly disappointed.

John's grin told Rodney that he could hear everything she was saying.

"Well, I probably can't talk about that particular subject right now," Rodney agreed, meeting John's amused gaze.

"Um, so what have you been doing?" Laura's question was immediately followed by Carson's scandalized tone, "Laura, give the man some privacy! Hello, Rodney."

"Hi, Carson." Chuckling, because this really was great fun, Rodney thought back over the last four unbelievable days and picked out the thing he knew would impress Laura the most. Well, aside from his having John Sheppard in his bed. "We, ah, had lunch in Cannes with that movie star you like so much the day before yesterday."

"Movie star? What movie star?" she demanded.

Rodney was bad with the names of people he knew. Keeping track of Laura's film loves was next to impossible. "You know, Gary something or the other."

"Gary Cooper?" she guessed, sounding like an excited three year old.

John gave a snicker and a negative shake of his head beside him.

"Er, no. You know, the British guy who was in that horrible tear jerker about the adopted baby that you made me watch last month," Rodney prodded.

"Gary . . . um," she tried to find another name.

John's sigh was probably audible in New York minus the phone line. "It was Cary Grant. Not Gary. You're the only person I know who could forget something like that."

John didn't sound particularly upset about that fact. In fact, he sounded rather pleased, which tickled Rodney, though he couldn't say why.

Laura's shriek of, "You had lunch with Cary Grant?!!!" totally deafened him. He was still trying to clear his ringing ear when she asked, "How did you meet him?"

"Um, John knows him. He's here filming some movie. He saw us come into the restaurant and invited John to his table," Rodney said, still a little awed by the whole event. He hadn't known the actor's name, but he'd certainly recognized his face. Although Rodney was fairly oblivious to the media hype surrounding celebrities, this guy had been famous enough for even him to recognize. The entire thing had been more than a little overwhelming.

"He was eating there alone?" Laura questioned, all curiosity.

"No," Rodney answered, wishing he were better at story telling. Maybe he should just pass the phone to John, who was much better at conversation. "He was with his co-star. The red headed singer with the Irish name that was in The King and I. They're making some kind of film about a cruise ship here."

"You had lunch with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr?" Laura's voice was rife with disbelief.

"Yeah," Rodney answered.

"I don't believe you," Laura said.

John smiled and said into the sudden quiet, "He's telling the truth and has the pictures to prove it."

"What was it like?" Laura enthused. "I want to hear everything."

Rodney tried to find a way to describe the lunch without sounding a complete moron. He couldn't very well tell her that he'd been sitting there the whole time scared out of his mind that those famous people were going to lure John away from him. Nor could he say that it had been pretty boring, not with John right here. He suspected that John had accepted the invitation merely to give him the thrill of meeting people so famous.

"Ah, it was nice," Rodney said.

"NICE? Only you could describe lunch with Cary Grant as nice!" Laura complained.

"Why don’t you just let me tell her about it?" John suggested in a joking tone, no doubt meant to tease him about how bad he was at this kind of thing.

Even though he knew John wasn't serious, Rodney leapt at the opportunity and passed over the phone to his naked lover. "Hang on, Laura. John's going to describe it to you."

John's eyes widened at having the phone thrust in his face, but, with his usual smooth style, he took the phone and said, "Hi, Laura. John here. I've heard so much about you, I feel like I know you," as if he'd planned to do it all along.

"Hi," Laura's nervous voice carried clearly to Rodney.

"The lunch was great. Deborah and Cary are here filming . . . ." John went on to describe the romantic tear jerker in glorious detail, answering Laura's questions about what the actors had been wearing at lunch, and what everyone had eaten. Rodney hadn't been able to recall a single bit of the plot of the movie and couldn't remember what he'd eaten himself, let alone the famous strangers in their midst. All he could remember clearly about the lunch was John turning down an invitation to tour the set so that they could spend the afternoon doing what they'd originally planned.

Rodney's wandering attention was pulled back to the present when he heard John saying to Laura, "Yeah. I've never met anyone quite like him, either. Rodney's definitely one of a kind. Well, I know this is costing you a fortune, so I'll give him back to you."

Laura's playful response of, "I think he'd like it better if you kept him," rang clearly through the cabin.

Feeling an embarrassed heat take his peeling face, because, even though she'd been joking, she'd been perfectly right, Rodney accepted the phone. "Hi."

"John sounds like a dream come true," Laura confided in a whisper that was only slightly lower than most people's normal speaking voices.

Rodney knew John had heard her clearly. That was confirmed when he glanced over at John and caught the blush. Not sure what to say, Rodney sighed and gave her the truth. He'd already been ridiculously candid with John about how much he enjoyed his company. It wasn't like this was going to come as any big surprise to him. "Yeah, he is."

John's startled gaze jumped to his face.

Unsure how to handle this, Rodney gave a helpless shrug.

To his great relief, John's face gentled and he smiled at him.

"Well, Carson's about to clip the phone cord. I'd better let you go," Laura said. "It was so good to talk to you."

"You, too, Laura. Thanks for calling."

"Ah, Rodney?" Laura called at the last moment.

"Yes?" Rodney asked, wondering what else she could possibly say to embarrass him.

"Have fun . . . and, be careful. Okay?" she said, sounding worried.

There was a time he would have been oblivious enough to wonder what she was concerned about, but this time, he knew. In six days, he was going to have to say goodbye to John Sheppard forever. He'd never been any good at hiding his feelings. Laura had to know how much losing John was going to hurt.

Gulping, Rodney said, "I will. See you next week."

Rodney passed the phone to John so that he could hang it up and then sat there staring at the tangled blankets, not knowing what to say. He felt uncomfortably exposed, but, then, it was hardly a new feeling. He'd been feeling horribly vulnerable with John from the start.

"I like her," John said, moving closer.

Strong arms settled around his shoulders. Rodney allowed himself to be drawn into an embrace, and, from there, into a kiss.

Neither of them had brushed their teeth yet. It annoyed Rodney that he found John's taste appealing even first thing in the morning. It just didn't seem right that any one man could be so damn perfect and desirable. In the beginning, he'd worried that his own morning breath would offend John, but since John hadn't seemed the least bit put off with it yet, he figured it mustn't be as bad as he'd feared.

When they emerged a breathless time later, John remarked, "We've got six hours in San Tropez today."

Rodney nodded, hoping he didn't look as glum as he felt. San Tropez was their last port of call. Tomorrow they would begin the return passage across the Atlantic.

"I've got an appointment with a very special lady in San Tropez in a few hours," John told him, his voice oddly inflected.

From the moment he'd accepted John's invitation to tour Monte Carlo with him, Rodney had known this moment would come. He'd spent every minute of the last four days expecting this beautiful, cosmopolitan man to tell him he was moving on. But John hadn't, and Rodney had begun to hope that he might be able to enjoy being with John for the entire trip, but John obviously had other plans.

Rodney couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice as he commented, "A girl in every port, huh?"

"Not exactly," John said, his expression becoming guarded for the first time in days. "This lady happens to be my grandmother."

"Right, your grandmother," Rodney snarked, not believing it for a minute.

"I'm serious, Rodney," John said in a firm tone. "My grandmother lives in San Tropez."

Okay, John wanted him to believe this grandmother story. Rodney weighed his choices. He could continue to hassle John and ruin what they had. Or he could buy into the grandmother line. If he did the latter, John would only be gone for a few hours. He had to come back to the ship in order to get to New York. Realizing that he might still have some time with John after he finished with his assignation if he didn't act like a complete jerk, Rodney swallowed hard and asked in a gruff voice, "So I guess I'll see you when you get back later?"

His pride screamed that he shouldn't make this kind of concession. He was leaving Trent because he wasn't going to put up with someone who cheated on him. But . . . he wanted John a hell of a lot more than he'd ever wanted Trent, and John and he really weren't in any kind of lasting relationship. John had every right to see other people on the cruise. Painful as it was, Rodney recognized that he'd take whatever John was willing to give him.

The silence that followed was awkward in the extreme.

Finally, John broke it with, "Rodney?"

"Yes?" he asked, not looking up from the blankets because he knew John would be able to read everything he was feeling in his face.

"I was kind of hoping that you might come with me today. I know that you'd miss seeing the tourist spots on San Tropez, but I'd really like to introduce you to my grandmother," John sounded nervous as hell.

Rodney's chin jerked up, his gaze jumping to John's face. John's expression was its usual bland mask, giving nothing away, but Rodney could see how intense his gaze was. It slowly registered that this wasn't a line, that John really wanted . . . .

"You want me to meet your grandmother?" Rodney asked, sure he must have misheard. After being Trent's dirty little secret for five years, Rodney could barely comprehend a lover wanting to . . . take him home to meet his family.

Rodney tried to tell himself that it wasn't like that. They weren't engaged or settling down together. Even if John did want him to meet his grandmother, it was probably just social convention dictating the invitation. Rodney knew he was clueless when it came to families. For all he knew, maybe everyone introduced the person they were shacking up with to their family. Rodney didn't know what the invitation meant; he just knew it couldn't be what he hoped it was.

"Yeah. Will you come?" John seemed braced for a rejection.

Rodney wanted to ask why John would want to introduce him to his grandmother, but John's uncharacteristic nervousness made him leery to push the issue. So, instead, he smiled and tried to smooth things over with a nervous, "I'd, ah, like that."

It was the right response. All that guarded caution left John's face. "Great. Thanks."

Two hours later, Rodney was sitting on the leather bench in a horse drawn buggy, carefully keeping his eyes off the thousand foot drop to his right as the carriage made its slow way up a mountain cliff. John was very quiet beside him as he sat there holding a long, flat, brown-paper-wrapped package that he'd said was a gift for his grandmother.

"Are you sure the hat's okay?" Rodney checked. John had never said anything, but Rodney had the feeling he wasn't too fond of his straw hat. He'd worn his best black suit, because, well, he was meeting John's family, but he couldn't take the sun, and as much as he knew the hat didn't go with his suit, he needed its protection. Still, he didn't want to look like a clown in front of John's grandmother, whom he was beginning to believe existed more and more.

John grinned. "It's fine. Can't have you burning to a crisp, can we? You're peeling so bad already that I thought you were disintegrating like a vampire in sunlight when I kissed your cheek this morning and all that skin came off on my lips."

Rodney's gaze jumped to the silver-haired carriage driver.

"Don't worry. He doesn't speak English," John said.

The buggy finally made it to the top of the mountain. Rodney looked out over the water way below, seeing the Mediterranean town nestled on the coast down there. If he didn't think about falling, it really was quite beautiful.

The carriage came to a stop beside a white stone villa. John climbed down from the carriage and then offered Rodney a hand down. As John spoke to the driver in French and paid the man, Rodney took in his surroundings.

A stone staircase led up to the villa, which looked like it had been carved right out of the white stone of the mountain behind it. Beds of bright pink, red, and white flowers lined the stairway, and there was a tremendous red bougainvillea vine in full bloom climbing up the wall on the left.

"This way," John said, visibly excited as he led Rodney up the stairway.

With each step, Rodney became more and more uneasy. He'd known John came from money, but this place was the kind of estate movie stars bought. Also, he was beginning to question how appropriate it was for him to be here at all, even though John had really seemed to want him to come. Meeting someone's parents or family was usually reserved for serious relationships in Rodney's admittedly limited experience. He was very conscious of the fact that this homosexual shipboard romance wasn't the sort of thing most grandmothers would want to hear about. Not for the first time this afternoon, he wondered why John had wanted him here.

Rodney's concerns were blasted away by the incredible beauty of the stone pathed garden the stairway let out into. The center of the garden was ruled by a tremendous fig tree with a trunk so thick that it would have taken five grown men standing finger to finger with outstretched arms to circle its girth. In front of the tree was a large fountain that was trickling away, adding a pleasant background sound to the birds' unceasing songs. There were lattices overhead from which grapevines with thick purple fruit dangled, and everywhere Rodney looked there were vibrant flowers.

Normally, his allergies would have been torturing him in a place with this much pollen and plant growth, but he wasn't even sniffling yet.

"It's like another world," Rodney said in an unconsciously hushed tone. Of all the wonders John had shown him in the last five days, this was the most serene and utterly breath-taking.

"It is. It's my grandmother's world," John explained, appearing charmingly excited as he led him through the garden. "That's the house there," John pointed out the larger white stone structure to their left that was utterly blinding in the afternoon sunlight, "That's the chapel," he pointed to a smaller building where a dog that looked like Lassie lay asleep on the threshold. "My grandfather is buried behind the chapel. I think my grandmother is waiting, somewhat impatiently, to join him. Grand'Mere?"

John's call remained unanswered. He put the brown-paper wrapped package down beside the fountain.

"She's not here. I wonder . . . ." John seemed to notice the dog. "Oh, she's in the chapel. Hi, there, Fidel."

The old dog came rushing over to John and jumped up to lick his face. "Rodney, this is Fidel."

Conscious of his allergies, Rodney backed away from the panting dog. John's dark grey suit jacket was already coated with white and brown hair. "Nice to meet you, Fidel. There's a good dog. Get all that messy hair on John's suit, all right?"

"You do realize you're going to end up sneezing anyway, don't you?" John's laughter seemed to fill the tranquil garden.

"Yes, but there's no reason for me to rush that experience," Rodney said.

There was a sound behind them like a gasp.

Rodney turned to see a petite, brown-skinned old woman in a long black dress and thick grey shawl standing in the chapel doorway, staring at John with wide, tear-bright eyes. She was of mixed race, which came as something of a surprise to Rodney. John was nearly as pale as he was. Taking in his grandmother's rich, brown skin, Rodney would have thought John would have had darker skin.

"Jacques? Comment est-ce possible? C'est incroyable!!" she said.

"Grand'Mere!" John exclaimed and ran to embrace the tiny woman.

Rodney was a bit startled by how openly affectionate his normally ultra suave lover was with the old lady. He watched the laughing pair hug each other again and again, rattling away so fast in French that Rodney wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in hell of translating even if he had understood the language. He hadn't a clue what they were saying, but it was clear that the two loved each other very deeply.

Finally, John and his grandmother seemed to get enough of the hugging, for John stepped away. John seemed to be watching him very closely, almost nervously, as he said in English, "Grand'Mere, this is my good friend Rodney McKay. Rodney, this is – "

Now it was Rodney's turn to gasp as he got his first good look at John's grandmother's face. Her skin was lined with age, her distinctive red hair gone silver, but her features were unmistakable to anyone who'd stared at her album covers for as many hours as Rodney had.

"Teyla Emmagan," Rodney finished for John, who was now looking shocked instead of nervous.

"You know my grandmother?" John questioned, visibly thrown.

"I think not. I would remember meeting your friend," Teyla said in thickly accented English, her dark eyes bright with her smile as she grinned at Rodney.

"I, ah, I've been a fan of yours since I was a kid," Rodney said, approaching Teyla the way he would a queen. "Your Rach 3 is the definitive version in my opinion. Pure perfection."

"Oh, you flatter me mercilessly, young man," Teyla accused, although she was visibly pleased.

"Huh?" John looked totally adrift as Teyla broke into musical laughter.

Realizing that John really didn't know what he was talking about, Rodney explained with his usual short temper, "Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30. It's probably the hardest piece to play on a piano. Your grandmother made it sound easy as chopsticks. How can you not know this? She's your grandmother!"

"It has been many years since I played professionally," Teyla said. "I'm surprised someone as young as yourself would even be familiar with my work. I gave up touring when John's mother was born."

"I, um, lived for your albums when I was learning to play," Rodney said, thinking that after meeting John, this was the greatest treat of the entire trip.

"I didn't know you played," John said. "I thought your folks were very poor?"

John didn't say it the same way Trent would have. Coming out of John's mouth, those words were only an innocent inquiry, not a statement on his inferior social status.

"Um, my mom was a maid in a rich lady's house. She couldn't afford a babysitter, so she used to bring Jeannie and me to work with her. I'd have to sit in the music room because I didn't know how to be quiet while she worked," Rodney said.

"That still doesn't explain how you know how to play," John pointed out.

"The rich lady's daughter used to take piano lessons while I was sitting in there. She hated it and never paid attention or practiced, but I used to watch the teacher, and one day after they left the room following a lesson, I sat down to try out what I'd seen. The teacher heard me and came back into the music room. She, um, gave me free lessons for years because she thought I had promise," Rodney explained, wishing he'd kept his stupid trap shut for once.

John looked stunned, his grandmother intrigued.

As if she sensed his discomfort, Teyla gave a smile and said, "Well, that explains it, then. Would you care for some tea? Please, come . . . ."

A commotion at the top of the stairs drew all their attention. A dark haired, heavy man in work clothes and a moustache, leading a little girl with braids, entered the garden.

"Marius!" John greeted, hurrying to the pair.

Once again, the resulting French was too fast for Rodney to follow.

Teyla seemed to take pity on him and explained, "This is my gardener, Marius. Jacques and he have been friends for years. Marius says that France needs more men, so he has seven daughters."

Rodney found himself chuckling at the wink that accompanied Teyla's words.

Turning to John and Marius, Teyla said, "Go and meet Marius' family. I'll look after your friend."

Though visibly tempted, John hesitated.

Teyla urged him, "Go on. I will not betray you."

"Do you mind?" John asked Rodney.

There was a time he would have sold his soul for time alone with this maestro, but given the present circumstances, Rodney wasn't sure it was such a good idea. He wasn't good at hiding stuff and John hadn't really told him how he wanted to present their friendship to his grandmother. But John really looked like he was eager to meet Marius' six other daughters, so Rodney pasted on his best smile and said, "I'll be fine."

"Thanks. I'll be back before you know it." John gave him a grateful grin and followed Marius and his daughter back down the stairs to the street below.

A little nervous, Rodney looked at Teyla.

"Come, we will make some tea," she said with a warm smile.

Rodney's steps faltered as he entered the villa. He'd been in a few stately rooms, mostly in the last five days as he'd toured the French Riviera with John, but he'd never seen such a beautifully appointed place. All of the furniture seemed to be expensive antiques. The glistening black grand piano at the far end of the room captured Rodney's attention as thoroughly as if it had hypnotized him.

"This is a magnificent room," he said to cover his rude reaction. He didn't want to embarrass John in front of his grandmother. Belatedly, he doffed his hat, putting it on a small settee beside a pair of velvet chairs.

"Thank you. My husband was a ship's captain in the English navy. He brought most of this back with him from his trips. He loved beautiful things. Me, too," Teyla said. "Please, make yourself comfortable. I will go get the tea."

"I'll help you," Rodney offered, thinking she looked too frail to carry a tea set for three.

"Thank you."

Rodney followed her into an old fashioned, but perfectly working kitchen that was filled with sunlight and the smell of fresh-baked bread. He filled the big old iron kettle with water and put it on the stove to boil while Teyla told him in a humorous manner very reminiscent of John how she was 82, had outlived two housekeepers, and was too old to train another.

"So, you play piano?" Teyla asked, showing Rodney where the tea set was stored.

"Not anymore," he answered.

"You've lost the taste for it?" she asked, the way a person would question someone saying they'd grown bored with breathing.

"No, I . . . when I was twelve, my teacher paid a lot of money to send me to Ottawa to audition for Randolph Plover."

"Not Plover!" Teyla exclaimed.

"You know him?" he asked, realizing how stupid the question was only after he'd voiced it. Plover and Emmagan had been contemporaries in the music world. Of course, she would have heard of him.

"What did that – " she said something in French that Rodney didn't know the exact translation for, but understood well enough to know that it wasn't particularly ladylike, ". . . say to you?"

Feeling that old shame and agony fill him, Rodney concentrated on taking down the tea saucers from the cupboard as he opened those old wounds, "He said that I was technically perfect, but that I lacked art. He said that I would never play Carnegie or the Met, that I'd never be anything but . . . technically proficient. It was all I ever wanted to do. After that, I just couldn't . . . ."

"That monster has deprived the world of too many treasures," Teyla said in an angry tone.

"What?" Rodney turned to stare at her.

"There was a time when he was a talented teacher, and a better performer, but he could never stand to see a talent greater than his own. He said something similar to the daughter of a good friend of mine when she auditioned. She was one of the most talented prodigies I've ever heard. Fortunately, her family knew better than to accept that jealous dog's appraisal and sent her to me," Teyla said. "Plover's judgment was not to be trusted, Rodney. His renown impressed people, but he was not an honest or good person."

Rodney felt a cold chill pass through him at her words. "You're saying that he . . . lied?"

"If he told you that you were technically perfect, you must have been brilliant. I'd say he did a good deal more than lied," she said gently.

"I-I don't know what to say," Rodney stammered, unable to process the scope of this.

He jumped as a dry, tiny hand touched his arm and gave it a squeeze. Meeting those dark, compassionate eyes, he realized that if anyone could understand the loss he'd suffered, it was this woman. For a moment there, he'd felt like he was going to lose it completely, but her touch and gaze seemed to give him strength. There was just such an air of serenity around her that it seemed to invoke tranquility wherever she went.

"Tell me, what pieces did you like to play most?" Teyla tentatively asked as she took out some biscuits from a breadbox.

Allowing himself to remember, Rodney softly told her his favorites, his enthusiasm for that lost music growing with every word. She was a maestro of more than music, he realized, feeling as though he were healing with every thought they exchanged.

She spoke to him as an equal, assuming he'd be familiar with the music she discussed, and, the truly astounding part was, that even after all those years of denying its pull on him, he still remembered every progression he'd ever played. Hell, for that matter, he remembered every piece he'd ever heard.

The talk moved from music, to the sights Rodney had seen on his trip, and a dozen other subjects as he helped Teyla gather their refreshments. It was only as he caught himself telling her of Laura and Carson that he realized how discretely she'd been probing him about his life.

As he carried the heavily laden tray back into the living room, Teyla complimented him, "It's good to see a young person who doesn't mind housework. Most are too busy 'living' to bother with such old fashioned things."

Rodney couldn't help but feel that her 'living' comment was inspired by her absent grandson. Deciding to take the comment as a generalization, he said, "My mother was too busy working to keep us fed to handle the housework by herself. We had to help out."

While she sat down on a chair and removed her heavy grey shawl, Rodney placed the tea tray on the end table to which Teyla had led him.

"She must be very proud of you," Teyla shocked him by saying.

He'd never even considered that his mother would ever be proud of him. He and Jeannie had been a burden for so many years that the very idea was incomprehensible. Concentrating on sorting out the stacked teacups and saucers, Rodney answered, "She's, um, gone now. I've been on my own since I was sixteen."

He didn't know why he was telling her this. He normally never talked about his past. But there was something about this gracious lady that made him feel safe with her.

"Oh, I am so sorry," Teyla said. "It must have been terribly hard for you. Jacques lost his mother at a very young age as well."

"I know. He told me," Rodney said, sitting down in the blue-velvet upholstered chair across from her.

"He did?" she seemed shocked.

Rodney nodded.

"Jacques never speaks of his mother," Teyla said.

"I, um, sort of harangued it out of him," Rodney admitted.

"Even so, he is very good at keeping his secrets. He would not have told you if he did not trust you. Only a very special person could get Jacques to open up that way."

"Or a very annoying one," Rodney corrected.

Her laughter was bright as the sun that was slanting in through the windows. "I like you, Rodney McKay, very much."

Hoping that his face wasn't as red as he feared, he stammered, "Er . . . thanks."

"Jacques seems very fond of you as well," she commented as she poured their tea. There seemed to be a world of meaning hidden in her words.

He wondered if she knew about John, if she suspected what was between them. But that couldn't be. If she thought he were her grandson's lover, she wouldn't be sitting here smiling at him.

Sensing the danger here, Rodney lowered his gaze and confessed, "I'm really not sure why he wanted me to come here. We've only known each other a few days. We met when John came aboard at San Remo."

He was a terrible liar. What he said was the truth, but not the whole truth. He wondered if she could read that in his face. She seemed as good with people as John.

"Still, you strike me as a man whose quality becomes known very quickly," Teyla remarked.

"How can you say that? You just met me a half hour ago." Rodney said. "I could be a serial killer for all you know."

To his consternation, she laughed in his face. "I sincerely doubt that my Jacques would leave me alone with a serial killer."

Smiling himself at the idea, he nodded. "All right. Maybe not a serial killer, then, but definitely an unknown stranger."

"A stranger who makes my Jacques laugh so openly will not remain a stranger to me for long. I haven't seen him that happy with anyone since he was a very young man," Teyla said, holding his gaze.

Rodney was pleased, despite his intentions to be cautious with her about John and his relationship. "You haven't?"

"No." Her face very serious, she said, "You are the first friend he has brought to meet me in more than twenty years. He knows I disapprove of the riffraff he wastes his time with, but you are different."

"You can't possibly know that," Rodney said.

"Can't I?" she gave him an eerily knowing smile.

"No, you can't," he insisted.

Still with the smile, she said, "Those pathetic, shallow creatures would never wear so impressive a hat. They would fear it would damage their image."

Rodney blinked at that. "You think you know I'm a good man because of the hat I was wearing?"

Clearly, his childhood idol was more than a little dotty. But she was John's grandmother and Rodney still liked her, so he tried to keep his feelings off his face.

"Yes." She was laughing at him again. "And now you think I am – how do the English say? – touched."

"Er," he stammered, mortified. John was going to kill him. "No, no, I, um . . . ."

The humor of the situation suddenly struck him, and he found himself laughing along with her.

"As I said, Rodney McKay, I like you very much," Teyla said when they'd calmed.

"Thank you. I, um, like you, too, and I don't usually like people," he added.

"But you like my Jacques, no?" she was smiling that knowing smile again.

Sobering, he nodded, all too aware that he liked her Jacques too much for his own well-being.

Her gaze making him uncomfortable, he rose to examine a colorful oil painting of the picturesque town John and he had taken that buggy ride through to get here. It was only as he was about to return to his seat that the anomaly in the corner of the painting struck him. "Sheppard? Is that . . . ?"

"Jacques painted it years ago," Teyla said.

"It's magnificent," Rodney said, hoping he wasn't giving anything away by how struck he was by John's talent.

"Yes, he is quite talented. Unfortunately, he is equally as critical. The artist in him creates, the critic destroys. I managed to save this one," Teyla said as he sat back down.

"I had no way of knowing," Rodney said, abruptly understanding what had inspired John's dark mood at the casino. What was it John had said? That he had failed his art?

"Things come very easily to my Jacques. When he was young, he enthralled us with his guitar playing. When he turned to painting, he was equally as talented. He just needs direction. There is nothing wrong with my Jacques that a good love could not cure," Teyla said, her gaze strangely piercing as it rested upon him.

His mouth running dry, Rodney took a sip of his milky tea. He couldn't escape the impression that she was trying to tell him something without coming straight out and saying it.

Continuing to hold his gaze, Teyla admitted in a low tone, "I love my Jacques so much, but I fear for him."

"Fear for him?" Rodney questioned. He'd never met anyone more capable of taking care of themselves than John Sheppard.

"He plays at life as if it were a game. Everything comes too easily to him – music, art, romance. I can't help but worry that some day life will present him with a bill he will not be able to pay," Teyla explained.

Rodney knew they weren't talking about actual money here.

"John seems pretty capable of taking care of himself," Rodney tried to comfort her.

"On the outside, perhaps, but inside . . . if you could have seen what he was like as a child – so open, so loving – you would understand how this life he lives has damaged him. When I've looked at him these last few years, I've been filled with dread for his future. But for some reason, when I saw him with you today, that fear was gone, because of you," she said.

"Me?" Rodney didn't quite yelp.

She nodded and sipped her tea, seeming content to watch him with those dark, knowing eyes.

"I, er, I'm not sure what you're saying to me – or why," Rodney said, wishing John would come back so this strange conversation would end.

"Don't you?" she challenged with utter calm. "I know my Jacques. He has never been conventional in his loves, whether they be art or people."

Dear God, she did know. Rodney gulped and tried to cover with, "John is going to America to get married."

"And yet it is not this Elizabeth he brings to meet his old grandmother," Teyla returned.

"The only reason I'm here is because I was on the ship with him and he didn't want to leave me to tour on my own," Rodney gave her the only explanation he could think of. "He was just being nice."

"He visits me four, sometimes six times a year. There is always someone waiting for him to return to the ship. He has no problem leaving them alone. He does not bring them here to me. You are the first and only one. You are here for a reason, even if Jacques may not know that reason himself," Teyla said.

"And you're . . . all right with this?" Rodney asked, a heartbeat away from total panic. He was all too conscious of the fact that he could be ruining John's life here with this woman. Though Teyla seemed to be guiding him into some kind of . . . confession, she might have just been fishing to have her suspicions confirmed. This could still turn into a horrible scene.

"My Ronon, Jacques' grandfather, followed his heart instead of convention. He married me in an age when people of my race were considered inferior simply because of the color of our skin. I had done well in the music world before meeting Ronon, but I was . . . how do you say? . . . an anomaly. Few men of Ronon's social stature would have dared bring a bride such as I home, but Ronon did. Jacques is very much like him. How could I not be 'all right' with what makes Jacques happy?" Teyla answered.

John's grandmother thought he made John happy?

Rodney took a deep breath to help calm his racing heart. After a minute, he said, "As much as I wish you were right, it's not like that. John is going to marry that heiress. She's got 600 million dollars. No one in their right mind would walk away from that."

"What artist is in his right mind?" Teyla asked. "He is not married yet. Nor, I suspect after meeting you, will he be."

"Why are you saying these things to me?" Rodney questioned, wanting to believe so badly it hurt.

"Because I am old and will not always be here for him. I want to know that when I'm gone, he will have someone strong to rely on," Teyla answered.

"You think I'm strong?" Rodney tried not to act as pole-axed as he felt.

"It is your nature," she said, like she'd known him for decades instead of the thirty or forty minutes he'd been here.

"What's his nature?" a familiar, teasing voice enquired from behind them.

Rodney swung around to face John, wondering how long he'd been there, how much he'd heard, but John appeared too lighthearted to have been eavesdropping.

"Marius' girls are amazing," John said coming over to give Teyla's cheek a quick kiss.

"Mind my hat," Rodney warned as John started to sit down on the settee.

"Oh, yes. The sacred hat," John joked, lifting it out of harm's way as he sat. Teyla was smiling warmly at them both during the exchange. "So, what have you two been up to? I imagine my Teyla has done most of the talking. Just for the record, Rodney, you look guilty as hell."

Rodney swallowed hard, searching for something to say.

Teyla filled the awkward silence with, "I was showing Rodney your art."

Something painful flickered through John's changeable eyes at her words before a smile took his face. "That reminds me. I have a present for you."

Teyla and he both watched as John quickly moved from his seat, out the door, to return a moment later with the brown-paper-wrapped package he'd left out in the garden earlier. John brought it over to the piano and placed it on the instrument's glistening black top.

Rodney helped Teyla up out of her chair and they moved to join John.

"You shouldn't be spending your money on me," Teyla chided her grandson, but Rodney could tell she was delighted under the words.

"Who better to spend it on?" John grinned. "Besides, it didn't cost very much. Go on, open it."

Though John's expression didn't alter, Rodney thought he was nervous.

Teyla reached out to wrestle with the long, flat present's paper.

"Here, let me help," John said, quickly ripping the paper away.

Teyla gasped as the contents of the package were bared to the light.

Rodney stared in shock as an old man's strong boned, smiling face looked up at him from the top of the piano, a face so well defined and filled with such life that Rodney could almost swear he saw the man blink. Rodney didn't know much about art, but the bold strokes of the paintbrush and use of vivid color seemed very similar to the painting of the town on the wall across the room. If this were John's work, he must have a very distinctive style.

"It's my Ronon!" Teyla crowed in utter delight. "But how . . . ?"

"I painted it from memory," John said, a little self-consciously. "I painted it some time ago, but debated giving it to you. Do you like it?"

"Like it? Oh, Jacques, it's . . . it's my Ronon." There were tears in her eyes as she reached out to hug John.

Watching them, Rodney was almost envious. He'd never had a grandmother. His mother had certainly never hugged him like that.

When Teyla withdrew from the embrace, she looked over at Rodney, met his eye, and said, "I told you he had talent."

Rodney smiled as his glance at John revealed a blush.

"Here, let me get you some tea," Teyla said, moving slowly back to the tea set.

Sidling closer to John beside the huge piano, Rodney whispered, "She's right, you know. This is fantastic. I can't believe you did it from memory. He looks like he's breathing."

"My grandmother is right," John said in a playful undertone. "You do flatter mercilessly."

"Not me. The bad-with-people merit badge, remember?" Rodney answered. "I'm just telling the truth as I see it, and I see that you're a great painter. A really great painter."

John's gaze softened. "You might be a little prejudiced."

"Could be, but I'm never wrong," Rodney said, not understanding why John doubled over with laughter.

The next few hours passed by in a blur of laughter and pleasant conversation. After a scavenger hunt for a hammer and nail, John hung his gift to his grandmother above the piano. There were aperitifs, an impromptu lunch of cold meat, cheese, and homemade bread, pastries for dessert, and more laughter than Rodney had experienced in a lifetime. The day passed like a dream. Aside from Laura and Carson, Rodney had never been with people with whom he felt so comfortable. He thought this must be what it was like to have a family. The only thing that might have made the day even better would have been if the Becketts had been there. For some reason, Rodney really wanted them to meet Teyla.

"Play for me?" John asked Teyla during a lull in the conversation.

"My hands are stiff," Teyla tried to decline. "I don't sound as good as I once did."

"Please? I think Rodney would really like to hear you," John laid on the heavy artillery, using both the puppy dog look that Rodney had come to know all too well and the convention of pleasing a guest.

Although Rodney had been dying to hear her play, he never would have imposed.

But John's observation seemed to decide the question for Teyla. She gave a laugh and a warning of, "Remember, I was asked," and then they were all moving over to that magnificent grand piano.

Her records hadn't done her justice, Rodney thought as he watched Teyla's stiff fingers fly across the ivories faster than lightning. She started with a light Bach fugue, moved on to Chopin, and then tackled the Rach 3.

It was in the last piece that Rodney saw her falter. She'd just reached the Intermezzo when her left hand seemed too slow to reach the next note on time. She continued like the maestro she was, but every time she hit that same refrain, the same note would falter.

At the fourth repetition, Teyla looked up at Rodney and asked, "Would you take the left hand?"

Rodney froze. Years had passed since he'd even thought about playing.

"Please?" It was there in her eyes that she knew what she was asking of him.

Gulping, Rodney nodded and slid down onto the bench beside her. The Rach 3 hadn't been easy when he was in practice. Now . . . . well, she had asked.

Teyla broke off, standing up to retrieve a stack of sheet music from the storage area beneath the bench's seat.

"Jacques, could you turn the pages?" she asked.

"Yes, of course," John agreed, moving to stand at Rodney' shoulder.

His heart was pounding like he was in the grip of an asthma attack as they began to play. To his amazement, his fingers remembered what they were supposed to do, finding each note on time. When he realized he wasn't going to make a complete fool of himself, his heart stopped racing so wildly and he actually began to enjoy playing.

John's hand braced itself on his shoulder as he leaned over to turn the first page. John left the hand there, leaning some of his weight against him in a casually intimate manner that made Rodney warm all over.

Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw Teyla, who obviously didn't need the sheet music, look over at them and grin. John apparently caught Teyla's reaction, for he gave his shoulder an encouraging squeeze and leaned some more of his weight onto him.

Rodney didn't think he'd ever felt happier. Perhaps in bed with John at the height of ecstasy, but aside from that, this was as good as it got. The feel of John's warm weight down his side, his childhood idol smiling beside him, and the music flowing all around him, it was like a dream.

After they finished with the Rachmaninoff, they moved onto easier duets: Handel's A Happy and Harmonious Blacksmith and Bach's Arioso. They'd just begun Diabelli's famous Rondo Militaire when a loudly blaring whistle sounded from outside.

Teyla and he both froze.

"I hate ships' horns," Teyla said, turning to gaze up at John through sad, sad eyes.

Teyla rose to her feet and John moved to embrace her.

Rodney's throat tightened as he watched the pair hug, holding on like they'd never let go. It didn't take a genius to see that both Teyla and John were very aware that this might be the last time they'd see each other.

His heart aching for them, Rodney looked away and tried to give them some privacy.

Eventually, Teyla and John parted. Still hanging on to each other, they stepped closer to where Rodney sat on the piano bench. The ship horn sounded again in the distance.

"We're really going to have to leave," John said.

Rodney nodded and got up to retrieve his hat as John and his grandmother started to walk towards the front door. Seeing Teyla's grey shawl on her chair, Rodney picked it up and brought it to her. As he carried the heavy garment to the door, he was struck by the intricate patterns in the knitted wool. It looked like one of those Irish sweaters that Carson wore.

"It's getting chilly. You might need this," Rodney said, handing the shawl to Teyla as they stepped out into the now dark garden.

"Thank you, Rodney," she smiled, squeezing his hand as he passed her shawl to her.

"It's very beautiful," Rodney said.

"Yes. It was my husband's. He brought it back from Ireland. He wore it when he was ill, before . . . well, before we lost him. It makes me feel closer to him when I wear it," Teyla explained. "I shall send it to you some day."

"No, that's not necessary," Rodney denied.

"I know. But I will. Beautiful things should belong only to those who appreciate their worth and take proper care of them," Teyla said.

Once again, Rodney had the feeling that they were talking about more than the shawl. The glance she cast in John's direction seemed to confirm that.

His mouth running dry, Rodney wondered if John were aware of the exchange, but John seemed totally focused on the imminent parting as he held Teyla's arm as she walked them to the edge of her garden. It smelt even sweeter in the dark.

"I'm going to miss you, Grand'Mere Teyla," John said, leaning down for another prolonged hug.

"I miss you every day," she said. "You promise to write?"

"I promise," John said, hugging her tighter.

As John finally withdrew Teyla looked up at him and said, "I like your friend very much."

"Me, too," John said in a strangely soft voice.

Rodney felt his resulting blush heat his skin straight down to his toes.

"Will you promise to bring Rodney back with you some time?" Teyla asked, sounding very much the family matriarch and internationally famous performer she had been.

Rodney gulped. In five days, he was going to lose John forever.

But John met his gaze, holding it for a long moment before he looked back at his grandmother and said, "I promise, providing he wants to come."

"Thank you for having me," Rodney said as John finally extracted himself from Teyla.

"The pleasure was totally mine," Teyla said, sounding like she really meant it. "Will I see you again?"

Almost afraid to look John's way because of what his face might reveal, Rodney forced his tight throat to answer, "I'd really like that. Until then, I'd like to write to you, too. If that would be all right?"

Teyla's grin was as blinding as her grandson's. "That would make me very happy." She turned to John and said something very rapidly in French.

"I will. I promise," John said in response to whatever Teyla had just said and moved to embrace her yet again.

"Well, good bye," Rodney said once John returned to him.

As they started for those stairs that would return them to the real world, Rodney felt like he was leaving a part of himself behind here. Looking back for a last view of the place, he saw Teyla watching them leave through watery eyes. Something painful ripped at his heart, and, for the first time in forever, Rodney felt compelled to do something totally sentimental.

Unable to deny the urge, he said to John, "Hang on a minute," and then hurried back to Teyla.

To his great relief, she seemed happy, rather than shocked, when he reached out to hug her. His hat was squashed between them as he embraced her. Her tiny arms closed firmly around him and hugged him back for a long moment, and then she stood up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek.

"Adieu," she whispered.

"Good bye," Rodney said, not understanding why he was so torn apart by leaving this person who'd been a total stranger to him yesterday. But there was something about this regal old lady that had been instantly familiar to him. Maybe it was because he'd admired her work for so long, that they had music in common, and both loved John, but Rodney really felt like he'd connected to her as he had few other people in his life.

John must have made arrangements with the carriage driver to bring them back to the ferry, because the same silver haired man was waiting in his buggy at the bottom of the steps. The old man's hair and the white spot on the brown horse's face stood out starkly in the encroaching darkness.

They climbed aboard and turned to wave to Teyla, watching as her black garbed figure grew smaller and smaller as the carriage made its way down the mountain. When they turned a bend in the road and the villa was lost to sight entirely, they sat back into the seat.

John was understandably subdued, his face tight and tense. Aside from some French to thank and pay the driver when they reached the pier, John didn't speak a single word on the trip back to the ship.

As they walked towards the first class cabins once the ferry had dropped them off at the ship, Rodney softly asked, "Do you want to be alone?"

"Sorry. I know I'm not very good company right now," John said. "If you'd prefer, I'll go back to my cabin – "

"That's not why I asked," Rodney said. "If you need some time alone, I understand. But what I'd really like is to be able to make you . . . .feel better."

Rodney wondered if it sounded as lame to John as it did to his own ears. But some of the strain seemed to ease from John's face.

"Thanks." John hesitated, seemed to consider his words, and then softly admitted, "You're already doing that."

It was ridiculous how happy those words made him, Rodney thought as he unlocked the door to what he now thought of as their cabin. John had been pretty much living here with him the last five days, returning only briefly to his own quarters in the morning to change.

Normally, when they returned from a day of sightseeing, they'd be locked in each other's arms exploring each other's tonsils before the door had closed behind them. But tonight as Rodney turned on the cabin lights, John moved to sit on the couch, his mood and expression somber.

Rodney wasn't sure how to deal with this, but then realized it wasn't really all that different from when Laura was feeling down. Of course, John wasn't sitting there mourning his inability to have children, but he was definitely mourning something.

Rodney put his dented hat on the coffee table and took a cautious seat beside his subdued lover.

After a quiet time, John sighed and said, "I'm sorry. It's just . . . she's so frail these days. Every time I see her, I'm terrified it's going to be the last time."

"There's nothing to be sorry about," Rodney assured. "She's an incredible lady. The idea of losing her . . . well, I've only known her a day and it shakes me up. I can't imagine what you're going through."

"She really liked you," John said.

"I liked her too, a lot." Thinking that John looked lost and strangely isolated in his pain, Rodney took a chance and laid his left arm across John's shoulders.

John looked over at him as though no one had ever tried to comfort him that way in his life.

Unused to offering this kind of solace, Rodney panicked, wondering if he were doing it wrong, but when John relaxed against him and leaned most of his weight onto his side, Rodney knew he'd somehow done right.

After a few minutes, John turned to face him and wrapped his arms around him, burying his face in the crook of his neck. Rodney closed his arms around him and held on tight. If he noticed John's shoulders shaking or the warm wetness that seemed to be soaking his shirt collar, he didn't feel inclined to remark upon it. He just held on because that was what John seemed to need. He didn't understand it, but somehow, simply holding John like this made him feel closer to his lover than even the fantastic sex they normally had did.

*~*~*

The next four days sped by like a dream.

Normally, the five days it took to cross the Atlantic felt like years to John, but here it was the fourth night, New Year's Eve. Tomorrow morning they'd sail into New York Harbor, and then . . . John had spent the last four days doing his utmost to not think about that particular 'and then'.

He suspected that Rodney was dwelling on nothing else but that imminent parting. Each day Rodney became quieter and quieter, and each night their lovemaking became more intense and desperate.

Now, sitting at their dinner table in the dining room with glasses of pink champagne before them, silly hats, and party favors on the table, and their fellow shipmates noisily celebrating what seemed to be the party of the century, it was all John could do to hold it together.

Across from him, Rodney looked utterly morose, his blue eyes not even seeming to see the dancing couples moving by their table. John hadn't been able to get Rodney to meet his gaze for more than a few seconds all night.

The disgustingly cheerful master of ceremonies, a handsome middle-aged man in a black suit and a top hat with a Happy New Year sash across it, took the mike and announced, "Here it is folks, the moment you've been waiting for. Let's count down the last minute of the old year and ring in the new, shall we? We'll all start together when I reach ten."

During ten second intervals for the next fifty seconds, the MC called out the amount of seconds remaining in the old year. When he finally reached ten, the entire inebriated crowd began shouting, "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one . . . Happy New Year!"

Then everyone was kissing and the band started up Auld Lang Sine.

Rodney cracked a heartbeat before John's own limits were reached. As the mournful tune filled the room, Rodney jumped to his feet. "I'm sorry. I can't do this."

Before he could respond, John was watching his lover speed from the room, minus his heavy winter coat, which Rodney left lying across the spare chair between them.

John grabbed both their coats and hastily followed Rodney out.

Relieved, he saw Rodney standing by the rail, head bent as he stared out at the black waters of the miserable, cold, grey night. Even from ten feet away, John could see that his sensitive friend was shivering from the freezing damp.

"Here, put this on," John said, holding Rodney's coat open so he could slip into it.

Rodney gave him a look that was pure misery, and then shouldered into the heavy black wool coat. John reached out to button it when it seemed Rodney would simply stand there shivering in the open coat. Rodney's hands settled on his biceps as he buttoned the coat. The hold was almost painful.

Only when Rodney was bundled up did John don his own coat.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said in a strangled tone.

"Nothing to be sorry about," John said, his throat so tight he barely recognized the sound of his own voice.

"It's just . . . I've been living in a dream these last ten days. This trip was never supposed to end. When I was with you, it felt like it would go on forever, but now it's over and . . . ." Rodney's words cut off abruptly.

John didn't need to hear the end of his sentence to know that Rodney was thinking the same thing he was – that now they were never going to see each other again. Needing to lighten the atmosphere, he tried to joke, "I tried to convince the captain to turn the boat around and just keep sailing, but he wouldn't go for it."

"Don't . . . please," Rodney pleaded. "I can't joke about this."

His words leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, John admitted, "Me, either. I guess I just wish I could've convinced him."

In any other situation, John would have been reminding his companion of how he'd given him the chance to bail on their first night together, but somehow it never occurred to him to bring it up. It wasn't just Rodney who was hurting here; he felt like his own heart was going to be ripped out come morning. But, for all that it was going to kill him to watch Rodney walk away come morning, he knew he wouldn't change a thing. Except the walking away part.

Seeming to read his very thoughts, Rodney said, "I don't regret a minute of our time together. These have been the best days of my life. They always will be. Thank you for them, John."

Rodney seemed utterly sincere. John could see that his heart was already broken, but he was standing here thanking him – for something that had meant as much to him as it had to Rodney. But Rodney clearly didn't see that.

Thinking that a 'Me, too,' would seem trite after Rodney's wrenching earnestness, John swallowed hard and stared into those miserable blue eyes. When they'd started this thing between them, John had made it clear that it was simply a shipboard romance. Hell, he hadn't even expected it to last two days, let alone the entire journey. But here they were ten days later, still together, more involved than John had ever been with anyone. The idea of walking away from Rodney McKay tomorrow morning was unbearable.

Rodney had given him things no other lover had even suspected he needed. In bed they had a chemistry that was nothing short of astonishing, and outside of the sack . . . .

John had only to think back on that day they'd spent with his grandmother to know how well Rodney fit into his life.

He still wasn't sure why he'd brought Rodney to meet Teyla. He'd never brought anyone before. Maybe it was because he didn't trust his own instincts anymore. He was falling for Rodney in a way he hadn't for anyone since he was a kid, and that scared him . . . still did, because a part of him just knew that that pedestal would come crashing down and he'd be crushed again. His grandmother had always been an excellent judge of character. John had figured she would see through Rodney to any flaws his hormones had blinded him to. Only, his discerning grandmother had taken one look at Rodney in that goofy straw hat, and fallen for him the same way he had.

That whole day had felt nearly enchanted. When Rodney and his grandmother had played those duets on the piano, John had been struck by how right it was to have Rodney there. It hadn't been like he was a stranger. It had felt as though Rodney had been a part of them for years.

The way Rodney had comforted him when he'd been so down once they returned to the ship after leaving his grandmother . . . no one had ever given him anything like that in his life. They'd sat on that couch simply holding each other for hours before Rodney had led him to bed, and then all Rodney had done was kiss his brow and rub his back until he fell asleep. Rodney hadn't pushed for sex or made him feel stupid for being so upset; he'd simply held him. John had never had anything like that before, and now that he did, he didn't want to lose it.

Rodney's thank you was still ringing in the icy air between them as John's heart made its decision. He was scared out of his wits, but this was too important to let fear mess it up.

Taking a deep breath, John reached out and laid his hand on Rodney's arm. "It doesn't have to be that way. It doesn't have to be . . . just a memory."

"W-what?" Rodney asked, visibly shaking from the cold.

In the dining room behind them, the band had finally finished depressing everybody with Auld Lang Sine and moved onto something people could dance to. The noise level increased tenfold.

Seeing how Rodney was still shuddering from the freezing wind ripping at them, John suggested, "Let's go back to the cabin and talk about this. You're freezing."

John used the few minutes it took to walk from the dining room area to the first class cabins for some fast thinking.

Rodney unlocked the door and turned on the overhead light.

The sitting room was warm and inviting as they stepped in from the icy night. After ten days of practically living here with Rodney, it almost felt like home. Or maybe it was just that being with Rodney felt like home now. Either way, it was comforting and the tension in John's stomach relaxed some.

John removed his coat and held out his hand for Rodney's as he unbuttoned it. Once they were out of their winter gear, John dumped the coats on an easy chair, sat down on the couch and patted the cushion next to him.

Rodney sat down beside him and softly said, "You said something about it not having to end?" His tone made it clear that he thought he'd misinterpreted.

This was his last chance to chicken out. John searched himself and searched those waiting blue eyes, but nothing had changed. He wanted Rodney, not just for a vacation, but for as long as he could have him.

The moment seemed frozen in time for John as he met Rodney's confused gaze and said, "I don't think I can walk away from you forever tomorrow. In fact, I know I can't. I don't want it to be over for us just because the cruise ends."

John felt like he was balanced on a frail tree branch over some bottomless precipice. The cynic in him was warning him that this was where the pedestal was going to crash and break that fragile support to send him plummeting into darkness forever. He wasn't the kind of guy solid folk like Rodney settled down with. He knew Rodney was sad about leaving him tomorrow, but that didn't mean Rodney wanted to marry him.

"You don't . . . ?" Rodney was gaping at him like he didn't understand the language he was speaking, but then his shocked eyes filled with delight and Rodney flung himself into his arms. "Oh, God, John . . . I'm awake, aren't I? Please, tell me I'm not dreaming this . . . ."

John couldn't tell from Rodney's voice if he were laughing or crying, but since his own emotions were tottering between raw panic and sheer delight, he could appreciate the dilemma. So, he just tightened his hold and hung on until the desperation passed.

Finally, Rodney pulled far enough back to meet his eyes. "I'm awake, right?"

John smiled and nodded. That was his Rodney, no holding back, giving him the world just for the asking. "You're awake."

"You're seriously going to walk away from 600 million? To be with me? Or am I putting the cart in front of the horse here. We never discussed, um, fidelity. God, I sound like some Victorian spinster," Rodney said, his eyes worried again, like he might have said too much.

John didn't know how to tell him that not having to marry Elizabeth and her 600 million was something of a relief. But he could comment on Rodney's other concerns, and maybe reassure his friend in the process. Every time Rodney said something like that to be with me comment, John ached for him. "Victorian or not, fidelity is something we're going to have to address. I don't want to share you. Trent's going to have to go."

Once again, Rodney freely gave him the reassurance that most of his previous paramours would have made him work for, if they'd given it to him at all.

"I closed that page forever the first night you kissed me," Rodney admitted. "But leaving Trent isn't like walking away from an heiress. You stand to lose a hell of a lot more than I will."

John worried his lower lip, not knowing how to explain, but thinking he should. The only real question was whether or not Rodney would still be interested in him once he heard the truth. "No, it's not the same. You actually loved him once. That's not the case with me and Elizabeth. She's a . . . friend more than a lover. Her trust fund's set up so that she can't have control of her inheritance until she marries, but she didn't want to marry someone who was pretending to love her just so he'd get access to her money. She knows I'm not in love with her, but she also knows I'm not going to rob her blind. My, ah, resources aren't exactly unlimited these days, so I found her offer impossible to refuse when she made it. I wasn't joking that night when I told you I was little more than a gigolo."

"Quit that," Rodney demanded, reaching up to lightly touch his cheek. "I hate when you talk about yourself that way

John had never had anyone look at him with such . . . reverence.

After a moment of staring into his eyes as if searching for answers, Rodney asked, "Um, I understand what you're saying, but how has any of that changed? Your . . . resources aren't going to increase because of me."

John held those worried eyes and said, "No, but now that I have something . . . of worth in my life, I'll – "

"You think I'm worth more than 600 million?" Rodney cut him off, sounding floored.

Deciding that it was high time he gave Rodney some of the wonderful, ego-boosting feedback that his lover always gave him, John softly admitted, "You are to me."

Right words. Rodney appeared completely floored by the quiet declaration.

"You . . . really?" Rodney stuttered. It looked like he wanted to say a lot more, but couldn't.

"I know it sounds hard to believe, but . . . Elizabeth's money doesn't mean that much to me. I've been all over the world and slept with more people than I can remember, but not one of them ever cared about me the way you do. If I get to choose between someone who will pay all the bills and someone who'll . . . be there for me when I'm down, I want the person who's there for me, and that person is you," John said.

His comment seemed to leave Rodney speechless, and, if John had learned one thing during the last ten days, it was that his lover had something to say on almost every subject. Depriving Rodney of language was a feat in itself, and John really liked how it made him glow.

"Wow, that's . . . just wow. So, um, what did you have in mind?" Rodney asked, every bit as overjoyed as he'd been depressed a few minutes ago.

"I, ah, want to live with you. I thought we could get a place together. In Manhattan, so you'd still be close to Laura and her husband," John said, making it up as he went along, because it had never occurred to him that he could really have Rodney.

"Not in San Tropez?" Rodney asked, his gentle expression seeming to say that he understood exactly how John felt about the situation.

John gulped. "I wish we could. After my grandfather died, I tried staying with Grand'Mere Teyla, but she insisted I leave. She . . . ah, said that I was too young to retire. She's . . . very independent and refuses to be a burden – "

"She wouldn't be," Rodney immediately assured.

If John hadn't fallen already, that would have done it right then. Knowing that he'd made the right move here with Rodney, he said, "Thank you. I know that, but she won't hear of it. So, I visit her every three months or so."

"Is that going to be feasible if we're living in Manhattan?" Rodney asked. "I mean, I don't know what your financial status is like, but once I stop working for Trent, my income is going to suffer greatly for a while. At least until I get my degree."

"You're going to do that, right?" John checked, sure that once his brilliant lover got the proper accreditation that Rodney would be at the top of whatever field he chose. "Once you get that sheepskin, there will be no stopping you."

Rodney's smile seemed grateful. "Thanks." Sobering, he continued, "I just thought you should be aware that I'm not, um, well off. I blew almost my entire savings on this trip. I've got that money I won in Monte Carlo. That would be enough to set us up in an apartment and handle my tuition, but it's not enough for us to live on indefinitely."

John knew Rodney was actually overestimating how far his winnings would carry him. There'd been times when he'd blown twelve thousand in a single night at the casinos. Not that either of them would be living that kind of life for a long while.

Realizing that it was his turn, John said, "I've, ah, never worked a day in my life. I've had a trust fund that's kept me going, but . . . it's not a hell of a lot. At least, not enough to support either of us in the manner we're accustomed to. I'm used to traveling first class with people who don't mind paying the bills. You're used to a Fifth Avenue penthouse."

"We're both going to have to turn our lives around if we're going to make this work," Rodney said.

John wondered if he looked as nervous as Rodney did. "It's a big step."

"Yeah. Do you think we can do it? Seriously? I don't want you to walk away from Elizabeth and end up hating me six months later because we're poverty-stricken," Rodney said.

"So, what are you saying?" John asked, suddenly tense, because this was beginning to sound like Rodney was already looking for a way out.

"What I'm saying is that before we try to make a life together, maybe we both need to prove to ourselves that we can make it on our own, without rich boyfriends or heiresses. I need to move out of that penthouse and get my education sorted out. You . . . ."

"Need to see if I can hack working," John finished when Rodney seemed unwilling to offer anything that might be viewed as critical. "I, ah, want to be . . . worthy of you."

"No one's ever . . . John, there's nothing you have to prove to me. I, um, love – er, like – er, I think you're great just the way you are."

"I asked you to live with me," John said, his insides turning to mush at Rodney's panicked attempt at telling him how he felt. "You get to say you love me."

Rodney's expression made it plain that 'I love yous' were another thing that jerk Trent hadn't been fond of.

"I do, you know, love you, that is," Rodney said, looking like he was waiting for the world to come crashing down around him.

Recognizing that that kind of declaration usually engendered a similar response, John hesitantly admitted, "I . . . haven't felt anything like this since I was a kid. I love you, too."

John held his breath. For so many years those three words had been verboten in his world. It wasn't cool to fall in love or to need someone. Letting yourself fall for someone was usually the fastest way to a broken heart, and being so foolish as to actually declare those feelings aloud . . . . Most of the women he'd dated would have laughed condescendingly at the quaint concept, while the men . . . You just didn't say things like that to another guy. But Rodney wasn't just another guy. He wasn't like anyone John had ever known before. Because it was Rodney, the world didn't come crashing down around him. Rodney didn't run for the door. His lover simply sat there staring at him, looking pole-axed.

Rodney didn't seem to know how to respond. After a moment, he said, "No one's ever said that to me before. I still can't believe that someone like you – "

"I mightn't be the guy the papers say I am, but I'm no prize right now. You deserve . . . better," John said, knowing the truth, even if Rodney couldn't see it yet.

"I wish you'd stop saying things like that. You're the best thing I've ever had," Rodney insisted.

About to remind Rodney that he'd had an extremely limited playing field up until now, John shut his mouth. Rodney mightn't have been with as many people as he had, but he was clearly capable of making adult commitments, something John himself hadn't been all that successful at or interested in. Going with a less contentious response, John said, "Thank you. I know you mean that, but . . . the reality is I've never worked. I need to be able to support myself."

Rodney nodded. "We both do. What kind of job do you think you'd like to do?"

John held those eyes and answered, "I want to get serious about my art. I thought I'd set up a studio and start painting."

In retrospect, he realized that being an artist wasn't any more stable or reliable when it came to income than being an international playboy.

But Rodney didn't tell him to grow up and get serious or scoff at the idea in any way. To the contrary, Rodney grinned and said, "I think that's a fantastic idea."

"You do?" John couldn't help but ask.

"Yeah. I don't know much about art, but I know good when I see it, and you're way beyond good," Rodney said.

Rodney's words making him warm all over, John said, "Thanks. The only thing is; art isn't exactly a stable field. There's no guarantee that I'll make any money at it at all . . . ."

"But you have to try," Rodney insisted. "It's what you love to do and what you're good at. Once people see your work, I know they're going to want to own it."

"That might take a while to happen. Sometimes it takes years to establish yourself in the art community," John warned.

"And it's going to take me a couple of years to get my degree. Nothing that's worthwhile happens overnight," Rodney said.

"We happened overnight," John pointed out.

Rodney gave him a totally goofy smile that seemed to light the whole room and said, "So we did."

"Getting back to the art . . . what if I don't make it? What if I can't – "

Rodney reached out and squeezed his arm. "You will make it. It might take some time, but I have every confidence in your ability. Maybe it might take a while for you to be known well enough to get showings in the uptown galleries, but there are dozens of artists who make a living selling their work to tourists on the sidewalks. You could do that until you become known."

"There aren't many men who'd . . . ah, encourage their lover to become a street artist," John said. "The reality is I mightn't make decent money for years, if at all. Maybe I shouldn't – "

"No. Art is what you love. That's what you should do. Once I get my degree and start working, this won't even be a concern," Rodney said. "We'll have a place and a steady income. It's just those first few months that are going to be rough."

"I'm not going to live off you," John insisted.

"Hell, you're so good that I might end up living off you in a few months," Rodney said in a tone that wasn't entirely joking.

"You sound like you mean that," John was too stunned to keep the words in. His grandmother was the only other person who'd ever had this kind of faith in him, and John had always figured that she was a little deluded.

"Well, not the living off you part, but the rest? Yeah, I meant it. You've got real talent."

"God, you're great for my ego," John said, wondering if he were actually blushing.

"Just calling it as I see it," Rodney insisted. "But . . . I think we need to talk about how we're going to work this. Are we going to move in together right away?"

John considered the question, and his own lack of discipline. He didn't like the answer he came up with.

"You said that we should both be self-sufficient before we do this, and I think you're right. As much as I'd love to live with you straight off, I honestly don't know how much painting I'd get done if you were there to distract me. We've, ah, barely seen daylight in the last four days," John reminded.

"I was thinking the same thing," Rodney agreed. "So, we're going to get our lives in order and then move in together?"

John nodded. "That sounds like it will work. How long do you think we should give it? It might take me a year to get enough material together to attract an agent, but I don't want to wait that long to live with you."

"Me, either," Rodney said. "But I don't think a couple of months will be enough for either of us to sort ourselves out."

"Should we give it six months?" John suggested, already hating the idea.

"It sounds like forever, but, yeah, that seems like a workable time period," Rodney said.

"And then what? We're both going to be moving . . . how are we going to even find each other after six months?" John asked, worried, because as much as he knew he had to change his life around, he didn't want to risk losing Rodney.

"What if we agree to meet somewhere, like the top of the Empire State Building? We could meet there at a specified time like, say, five pm on July first?" Rodney asked. "That would be six months from now."

"Yeah, that would work," John agreed.

"And, if for whatever reason one of us were to change his mind – " Rodney started, something in his expression seeming to suggest that he wouldn't be surprised to be stood up.

"That's not going to happen," John said. "At least, not on my end."

"Me, either, but if it does happen that one of us isn't there, there'll be no recriminations or questions. This isn't going to be easy for either of us," Rodney said.

"But we're going to do it," John insisted.

"Yeah, we're going to do it. God, John, I feel like the weight of the world's been lifted off my shoulders," Rodney said, his eyes so bright and eager that John knew that Rodney had probably intended that 'no recriminations or questions' line so that he himself would have an easy out. John realized that if their positions were reversed and it were Rodney who was engaged to someone worth 600 million, that he might have some trouble believing that Rodney would want to walk away from that for his sake.

"Me, too," John said, and then they were kissing.

In the last nine days they'd gotten undressing each other down to an art. Before John knew it, their clothes were spread around the couch, and Rodney was rising to his feet to lead them to the bedroom. John would have been content to remain squashed on the couch himself, but he knew it was murder on Rodney's bad back.

Although Rodney loved food too much to test the theory, John was convinced that they could live on these kisses. He'd never met anyone who tasted so good to him or whose kisses turned him on this fast and hot.

They ended up in their usual position – Rodney flat on his back on the bed with John on top of him. He was already hurting at the idea of not having this for a whole six months, but since he hadn't thought he'd ever have it again after tomorrow morning, he wasn't as upset as he might have been. They could do six months . . . and then they'd never have to be apart again.

Rodney broke the kiss to ask, "What are you smiling at?"

"It's disgustingly sentimental, but . . . I was thinking how much I was going to miss this for the next six months, but then I realized that once we get through those months, we'll never have to miss it again," John said, still a little hesitant about admitting such a thing aloud, for all that he knew Rodney probably wasn't going to laugh at him.

"Yeah. I hate the thought of walking away from you tomorrow, but just knowing that we're both going to be working towards building a life together . . . . "

"That's what I was smiling at," John said, diving in for another kiss.

He shivered as Rodney's hands stroked down his bare back and over his buttocks. Those big, square hands settled there, just resting for a moment. He had the strong impression that Rodney was waiting for some kind of objection. When none came, those warm, capable hands cupped his cheeks and squeezed them together, setting off internal fireworks that would rival the most spectacular Fourth of July exhibition.

Normally, John didn't welcome that kind of caress, but the fact that it was Rodney doing it made it feel wonderfully erotic. He couldn't help but wonder if some of the other things he'd avoided over the years would feel that great with Rodney doing them to him. He'd been used in bed so much in his life that he was paranoid about losing control these days, only . . . Rodney had never treated him like a piece of meat. To the contrary, the guy acted like he was some kind of sacred gift.

Curious as to what Rodney would do if given free rein, John rolled over onto his back and drew Rodney on top of him. Rodney was so into the kiss that he didn't seem to notice their change of positions.

John liked how that warm, soft weight pressed down onto his body all over. He'd never realized he'd needed this kind of closeness before, but it felt like that contact was feeding his empty soul.

Eventually, they parted for air. Rodney gulped in a few frantic breaths, and then his kiss-swollen lips homed in on John's throat. Rodney was as eloquent with his mouth when he used it in bed as he was in daily speech. Within moments, Rodney had him shuddering under the kisses and sucking he was administering to that vulnerable area.

John had barely gotten a handle on the neck action when Rodney's tongue slid over his collarbone, trailing down to the nipple lost in the sea of his chest hair. John nearly bucked them both off the bed when Rodney started sucking on it. He'd never been particularly sensitive there before. He didn't know if Rodney were especially good at sucking nipples, or if his body had woken up after nearly thirty-five years and finally taken notice of the fact that it had nerve ending in that area. Whatever the cause, the effects were nothing short of devastating.

The pleasure jolted through him like a raw electric current, lighting him up all over, and then pooling with all the blood that was rushing to his groin.

John found himself panting as Rodney's tongue finally abandoned his nipples and followed the dark trail of hair across his belly. His cock was aching for Rodney's touch, twitching where it lay pressed against his lower abdomen.

Rodney's roving tongue made what seemed accidental contact with the seeping head of his shaft and John's reality transformed. He could hardly credit the needy, mewling sound that came out of his throat as a sound he'd ever make, but there it was, keening through the breathy silence. He was usually so in control in bed, so unimpressed by technique . . . but, he dazedly realized that it wasn't Rodney's expertise that was setting him on fire; it was the emotion behind every move his lover made. The way Rodney touched and handled him almost qualified as worship. There was so much care and emotion in every touch that the effects were devastating. John had never felt anything like it. He'd had a thousand blowjobs, but never had anyone giving him head treated him with such . . . reverence.

He was actually quivering when Rodney sucked his length into his mouth.

As Rodney's tongue dismantled his cock, and the resulting sucking attempted to swallow him whole, John's hands found their way to the baby fine brown hair that Rodney was so worried about losing. Granted, it was thinner than most of his previous lovers' hair had been, but it was so incredibly soft under his fingertips that John knew he'd never felt anything so lush. Although part of him wanted very much to use his hold to move things along, John let Rodney take his time.

Their first night together, John had decided that this Trent guy had to be out of his mind to do anything that would jeopardize this. Rodney mightn't have had a lot of partners in his life, but he was a true artist at fellatio. John couldn't imagine this ever getting old or stale – the adjectives Rodney had said his former lover had used to describe their sex life, but, then, he couldn't picture either of those adjectives in conjunction with this vibrant, difficult man. The one thing he'd learned over the last ten days was that although Rodney mightn't be normal by anyone's standards, he was never, ever boring.

Rodney's fingertips trailed over the thick hair downing John's thighs, and somehow even that felt like some unique and erotic innovation. John's legs splayed wide apart in an instinctive reaction to what that touch did to him. Still deep-throating him, Rodney's fingers slipped further in between his thighs, sliding upwards in a shiversome stroke.

John bucked up so hard that he was afraid he'd choke Rodney.

He whimpered as Rodney detached from his cock and lifted his head up far enough to see him. Rodney didn't look like he was teary eyed from the rough thrust or suffering any other ill effects from his loss of control.

"Do you like when I touch you there?" Rodney questioned, moving his fingers up and in, just grazing into the cleft between his cheeks that John normally didn't let anyone touch if he could help it.

Apparently, his genius lover must have found a way to rewire his pleasure centers while he was asleep, for suddenly, that threatening touch felt like sheer nirvana. John hoped that his resulting groan made sense to Rodney, for English seemed beyond him.

"I can send you straight to heaven if you let me," Rodney offered, his eyes hot and eager, his cheeks flushed.

"Already there," John managed to grate out.

"Oh, no, I promise you, you're nowhere near there," Rodney contradicted. "Can I, um, show you the difference?"

About now, John would usually say no, that what they were doing already was fine, but he found himself nodding in response to that hopeful gaze. He had no clue as to what he'd just consented to; all he knew was that he couldn't turn down this man who said he loved him. Trust didn't come easy to him, but, for what it was worth, he trusted Rodney, at least enough to know he wouldn't hurt or use him.

So, when Rodney pushed his knees up to his shoulders once his consent had been given, John did his damnedest not to freak out. He hated being exposed like this, hated being so open, so powerless.

His heart was pounding more with fear now than desire. He was seconds away from asking Rodney to stop when Rodney lowered his head over him again. That talented tongue trailed down the underside of his cock, pausing to pay tribute to that sensitive spot behind the head before continuing on its way down.

John shivered as Rodney trailed that wet tormentor over his perineum. He thought he was ready for anything. He'd expected fingers to touch him there, or maybe even Rodney's cock. What he wasn't anticipating was for Rodney's tongue to find that hidden entrance to his body and make it the center of his universe.

Remembering how long it had been since they'd showered before dinner, John tried to protest, "Don't . . . I'm not . . . we haven't showered . . . . "

But then that tongue tip was pressing against his tight opening, and John lost all ability to speak.

Maybe his refusal to allow anyone to touch him there for so long had made that area hypersensitive to any touch. All John knew was he could barely stand the intensity of his body's reaction to that talented tongue. As Rodney slowly rimmed his opening, occasionally poking the tip of his tongue into his center, John's entire body exploded with sensation. He literally felt as though he were melting from pleasure.

He whimpered as that unbelievable delight abruptly cut off what felt like centuries later.

He saw Rodney raise his head far enough so that their eyes could meet. Rodney looked as blown away as John felt as he said, "Now you're there. Want more?"

It was like asking someone if they wanted to keep breathing. John could only nod and hope Rodney didn't abandon him here in this state of heightened need.

Rodney's right hand left his bottom to open the nightstand drawer and pull out the by now familiar jar of Vaseline.

A part of John knew he should be alarmed, but he couldn't focus enough to get upset about anything other than how soon Rodney would touch him again.

Rodney didn't keep him waiting long. As soon as Rodney had extracted a heaping helping of gel from the jar, his hand returned to where it would do the most good.

John gasped as Rodney's Vaseline-coated middle finger found the entrance his tongue had pleasured to capacity a minute ago. For the first time ever, a finger sliding into him didn't feel like a violation. Rodney moved with a slowness that was nothing short of exquisite. John could feel those hot eyes studying his face as Rodney eased his finger into him, as though Rodney were studying his reaction to ensure he delivered the most pleasure.

The instant that gooey finger made contact with his prostate, John's whole nervous system pulsed with convulsing pleasure. The sensations were nowhere near as subtle as those inspired by Rodney's tongue tip, but it wasn't subtle that John wanted now. He was quivering all over with need and soaked with sweat. All he wanted was more . . . .

Rodney's head lowered over him again. Rodney sucked his engorged cock back into his mouth as his finger made nice with that amazingly sensitive gland. John's brain melted at the duel stimulation. It had been a long time since he'd allowed a lover to do this, and he couldn't recall it ever feeling this wonderful before.

One finger became two after a time. John just lay there inundated by the pleasure. Rodney's fingers were fully as talented as his mouth, but then, he'd known that from that day Rodney had played piano with his grandmother. Rodney was mastering his body now as he had those black and white keys, calling ecstasy forth with every movement of his fingers inside him and every suck he gave his hungry cock.

Recognizing how close he was to meltdown, John gave a frantic pull at Rodney’s hair and drew his head up, so that he could warn him. "I'm gonna come."

It seemed to take Rodney a moment to remember how to talk, if his heated, abstracted expression were anything to go by. "That's the idea, isn't it?"

"Don't you want to . . . be inside me when that happens?" John rasped out, unable to believe what he was saying. He just couldn't comprehend how any guy could get him this hot for it and then pull back, but Rodney wasn't lubricating himself or moving into position like anyone else would be doing this close to liftoff.

Some of the heat left Rodney's eyes and face. Sobering, he said, "You don't like to do it that way."

John was shocked to realize that Rodney was perfectly sincere. He clearly hadn't intended to take it any further. "But . . . you got me all loose and ready for it."

Somehow, it came out as a question.

Rodney's brow puckered in a wholly adorable frown. "That was for you. To take you to heaven, remember?"

John felt his world slip out from under him at those soft words. The tender, warm feelings that rushed through him were utterly devastating.

A little ashamed, John realized that he'd never really understood love until this minute, let alone felt it. Had he ever put anyone's desires before his own the way Rodney had just done? Sometimes, he'd humor his grandmother and do something she wanted instead of what he'd prefer, which he supposed did prove that he loved her, but it wasn't quite the same scale as what Rodney had just done.

John reached out to wipe off a huge sweat droplet that was trickling down Rodney's cheek. It still amazed him that with as red as Rodney had gotten, he hadn't tanned. As soon as the sun-burnt skin had peeled away, his lover had returned to his normal pallor as though he'd never seen the Mediterranean sun.

Letting his thumb linger to stroke the side of Rodney's cute nose, John knew he'd never cared about anyone the way he did this man. Something in him needed to show Rodney that, and he could think of only one way to do it that would mean anything.

Taking a deep breath to steady his shaky courage, John gulped hard and said, "I'm not all the way there yet. Take me the rest of the way?"

"Huh?" Rodney seemed completely distracted by the feel of his thumb stroking his nose and cheek.

His knees still pressed to his chest, John pushed himself awkwardly up to lick the next sweat bead as it streamed down Rodney's cheek. The salty, tangy drop slithered through him like liquid fire, touching off a million smaller flames as it passed through his system. John indulged himself and kissed those gasping lips long and deep before he pulled back and explained, "Finish what you started. Take me all the way to heaven."

To his continued astonishment, Rodney didn't jump at the opportunity like most men would, protesting instead, "But you don't like – "

"I don't like to be used and discarded," John said, being more honest than he'd ever been with anyone in his life. "I'm just a piece of ass to most of the others, but with you . . . I know it would be different with you."

John heard Rodney swallow. He didn't understand the sudden anxiety that filled Rodney's expression. "Um, you probably should know that I haven't . . . I mean, I've never, well, I've never been on this side of the equation before."

Rodney had been with that bastard Trent for five years and that loser had never once allowed him to . . . ? It was beyond his comprehension. He'd barely known Rodney eleven days and would do just about anything for him now.

Hating how embarrassed Rodney appeared, John rested his forearms on Rodney's shoulders and ran his fingers through the silky, fine hair as he said, "I find that hard to believe. I've been with more people than I could possibly remember, and not one of them got me anywhere near as close to heaven as you did before. You played me better than you did that piano last week, and that's saying something."

That horrible embarrassment finally faded from Rodney's eyes. Seeming more himself, he said, "I have a pretty vivid imagination. I always thought what we did before would feel pretty amazing."

John really was floored now. He would have sworn Rodney was a master at that particular art. Rimming wasn't something he normally engaged in himself. That Rodney could be so good at it, yet have no experience, was astounding. "You mean you never – "

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head. "Trent was fairly conservative when it came to sex. Most of the stuff you and I do together would have freaked him out totally. I always used to fantasize about someone like you who would . . . go with the flow."

Realizing that dredging up this kind of stuff couldn't be pleasant for Rodney, John did his best to let the topic go.

"So, let's do some more flowing. You were going to take me all the way to heaven, remember?" John suggested, giving Rodney a playful wink. His own inhibitions suddenly seemed irrelevant. Right now all he wanted was to give this incredible man this gift that Rodney had never experienced before. He was surprised to find that he was still enough of a romantic to wish that Rodney were his first, that he could give him something really special, but he was realist enough to recognize that it was better that one of them know what they were doing.

Still visibly uncertain, Rodney questioned, "Are you sure you want – "

John leaned up to cut the question off with a kiss. As their tongues met in the resulting wet sharing, he was intensely aware of where Rodney's tongue had been a few minutes ago. Any other time, that knowledge would have grossed him out, but with Rodney, it all just felt unbelievably hot.

When they broke for air, Rodney was wearing that pleasure-blasted glow that John loved so much.

Rodney reached out to stroke down his sweaty chest. When his nipples peaked immediately to attention between where his hairy kneecaps were still pressed to his chest, Rodney pressed his face between his knees and licked his nipples. That soft, wet tongue was fully as talented here as it had been elsewhere. John gasped as Rodney blew across the wet flesh, the flow of warm breath over the moist skin creating a barrage of sweet shivering quakes as the pleasure swept through him.

Rodney's tongue followed the thick swath of hair down the center of his body to where his straining cock was trapped against his lower belly. John gave a sharp cry as that tongue re-familiarized itself with his aching shaft. In the last ten days, Rodney had learned every one of his vulnerable spots, and that wicked tongue tantalized them all.

Finally, Rodney was back where John wanted him.

As Rodney's finger pressed up his center, John was once again struck by how unusual his response to this was. Not once, ever, had anything entering him felt less than an intrusion or outright violation. But Rodney's finger felt good as it pressed up into him.

To his impatient delight, Rodney approached taking him as if he hadn't touched him back there at all tonight. That finger entered him slowly, taking its time with his prostate, driving John to the point of explosion with the thorough attention.

When Rodney's second finger entered him, John was once again a mindless wreck. He was moaning nonstop now as Rodney scissored his fingers inside him, sending waves of devastating pleasure coursing through his helpless body as he made contact with that hidden pleasure node. He would have begged if he'd had enough control of his speech to do so.

The insertion of a third finger seemed a bit excessive. John already felt so loose that he was certain Rodney could have fit his entire arm up inside his usually painfully tight channel. But Rodney was nothing if not thorough. By the time Rodney's fingers were done there, John felt so sensitized and open that he was certain the ship could have sailed easily through him.

Finally, Rodney extracted his fingers.

John loved the uncertain, tender expression in Rodney's passion-flushed face as he stuck his fingers back into the Vaseline and transferred a heaping helping to his blood-darkened shaft. Rodney looked way past ready, but he also seemed scared to death.

John forced his brain to work long enough to grate out, "What's wrong?"

"I . . . want to do this right. But I never . . . and you don't like to be taken . . . No matter what I do, I'm going to mess it up . . . ."

He'd seen Rodney get these panic attacks in the last ten days, just never in the bedroom. Realizing what a tremendous amount of pressure Rodney was under at the present moment, John reached out past his own curled up knees to stroke Rodney's face. He could barely think straight, he was so close, but somehow he found words. "You couldn't mess up now if you tried. Come on, take me to heaven."

Not giving Rodney a choice, John's hand dropped from Rodney's face to his more than ready cock. He wrapped his fist around the base of that Vaseline coated beauty, gave a careful pull, and gently guided Rodney's shaft between his uplifted, exposed cheeks.

The snub head of Rodney's circumcised cock found his entrance. John tried not to think of how big Rodney was, but it was hard not to when his thumb and index finger were measuring the impressive circumference of that meaty shaft.

His action and words seemed to calm Rodney some. He heard Rodney take a deep breath.

"John?"

"Yeah?" he hoped he didn't sound as nervous as he felt. It had been years since he'd let someone take him.

"This is . . . the fact that you'd let me do this, feeling like you do about it . . . I just wanted you to know that no matter how it turns out, this means the world to me . . . and – "

His throat wasn't supposed to choke up at times like this. Holding those nervous eyes, John said in as normal a tone as he could manage between his reaction to Rodney's words, his own fears, and conflicting desire, "This is the no talking part of the proceedings. Go for it."

But Rodney didn't budge, continuing in a determined, raspy voice, "I need you to know that I really, really love you – more than anything."

John was still reeling from what those words did to him when Rodney finally eased the head of his shaft into him. Rodney was big, and even though he was well stretched, the insertion of the wide head through his way too small opening hurt like hell, as it had every time John had done this. But, unlike most of the other times, Rodney froze inside him at whatever his face was revealing.

"It used to hurt when I was new to it, too. It helps if you take a deep breath," Rodney instructed, holding perfectly still, for all that he had to be aching to simply thrust home.

John gulped in a big breath. It helped some.

"Now squeeze me tight," Rodney said.

John squeezed. When he released the muscle, it didn't hurt as much. Then Rodney reached out to collect his pain-limp cock into his hand. A few skillful strokes had John at full mast in moments, that familiar delight rocking his system with every pump Rodney's fist gave his cock.

He didn't know how Rodney managed it, but within a couple of minutes Rodney's cock didn't feel like the lance that had initially pierced him. Rodney still felt huge, his bulk seeming to cut him in two, but somehow, it didn't hurt like it had.

Rodney entered him slow and steady, waiting for his body to accept him before pushing deeper.

John had gotten used to Rodney babbling when they were this close to meltdown. Normally, the words didn't make much sense, being a mishmash of 'please', 'yes', and 'more'. But tonight, Rodney was totally coherent as he said, "Do you know how perfect you are? How wonderful this feels? You're so beautiful, John, so beautiful . . . and I don't mean just looks. You're . . . god, oh, god, you're . . . I just . . . love you."

John was lost in what that internal friction against his prostate was doing to his nervous system. Rodney was redefining ecstasy for him inch by slow inch. And the things Rodney kept saying . . . John had never gone in much for sweet talk, but that constant stream of his name and 'I love yous' was totally mind-blowing.

When Rodney was in as deep as he could go, he just froze there, giving them both the opportunity to experience the sensation to its fullest. John was totally lost, blasted away by the unexpected pleasure and the even more unique emotional factors. As he lay there with Rodney filling him as deep as he could go, he felt utterly open and intensely vulnerable. But, somehow, even that was all right, because there was a unique aspect to this union that John had never experienced before.

For the first time ever, he wasn't falling into the darkness alone as he gave someone everything he had. Rodney wasn't just using him to get off or simply interested in his own pleasure. John might be embarrassingly open and vulnerable, but Rodney was taking care of him, making sure that John was happy and comfortable before every move he made. The exquisite care Rodney was taking not to hurt or push him too fast, combined with that verbal barrage of loving babble was like nothing John had ever experienced.

When Rodney finally started to thrust, John didn't feel used or left out. Every stroke inwards hit his prostate, sending him higher and higher while Rodney spoke of his feelings for him more openly than John had imagined a man could. The sheer love Rodney was lavishing upon him was overwhelming.

John let it fill him, let Rodney claim parts of him that he'd never dared open to anyone. Every time Rodney thrust in, John's body rose to meet him, and every time he pulled out, John ached to be filled again. Finally, he began to understand why some men preferred to be taken. Only, John didn't think he'd ever want anyone else but Rodney taking him like this. In fact, he didn't think that anyone other than Rodney could take him this way, with such absolute consideration of his needs.

If he'd had any question of Rodney's feelings for him, tonight would have dashed all his doubts, the same way it had vanquished his inhibitions and fears. This wasn't about using or owning him, or the dozens of other reasons men had wanted to fuck him in his younger days. All this seemed to be about was making him feel good, in a way he'd never felt pleasure before. Their first night together, Rodney's passion for life had seemed to reawaken his stunted feelings. Tonight, Rodney's love healed all those broken places inside him.

For so long, he'd thought himself unworthy of anything real or special. Respectable people like Rodney didn't bother with the likes of him, or if they did, it was only to fuck him. The papers had branded him as nothing more than a pretty whore and after years of that kind of press and disappointing romantic encounters, he'd come to believe it himself. Tonight, Rodney showed him how wrong they all were, including himself. Whores and pretty boys didn't inspire this kind of . . . devotion. Rodney was treating him like some cherished treasure, and because of that, John began to feel like one.

Where he'd shriveled up and died inside when other men had done this; he blossomed under Rodney's attentions. He felt as if every thrust brought Rodney closer to him. It wasn't like fucking at all; it was like melding, for Rodney seemed to be giving far more than he took.

When he closed his eyes, he couldn't tell where his skin stopped and Rodney began. All he knew was that he'd never felt delight like this, nor had he been touched with such care.

With a final, primal thrust, Rodney stilled inside him. John watched ecstasy transform Rodney's features into something ethereal and sublime. Then his own body overloaded with pleasure and he was spraying both their chests with his warm, sticky seed.

The orgasm seemed to go on forever.

Rodney's ended first. He slipped out of John's body and collapsed onto him like a puppet whose strings had been cut. When John finally spiraled down from those incredible peaks, he found Rodney's considerable weight constricting his chest, Rodney's face buried in the crook of his neck, and Rodney shaking all over. Rodney was holding on to him as though he'd been the one swept away by feelings and sensations he didn't understand.

Through the daze of afterglow, John was startled to realize that was probably the case for Rodney as well. Rodney might have had a steady lover for five years, but it was clear he'd had precious little love in his life. At least John had always had his grandparents to bolster him up through the years. It didn't sound like Rodney had ever had anyone until he'd met those neighbors of his that he was so friendly with. But he had someone of his own now. John only wished he knew how to tell Rodney that without making him self-conscious.

He didn't know what to say or do, so he just stroked Rodney's sweaty back and held on. The trembling slowly ebbed and Rodney's breathing slowed into the deep, steady cadence of sleep.

John had to grin. That was so Rodney, to go from a complete emotional wreck to unconscious with sated pleasure from one breath to the next. John kissed the fine hair on the top of Rodney's head that was lank with sweat.

Recognizing that they'd both be shaking from the cold in a few minutes, John wrestled the bedspread and blankets out from under them and pulled them over them both. Cuddling Rodney close, John held on to him like he'd never let go, closed his eyes, and let sleep take him.

*~*~*

January first dawned cold and clear.

Rodney had his coat on and was ready to disembark as he stood in front of his porthole. He had never seen New York harbor look as shiny and magnificent as it did through that tinry round window as they sailed up the Verrazano Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The water was nowhere near as blue as the French Riviera had been, but it was pretty damn impressive for New York.

The Brooklyn Bridge had been a faint smear on the horizon a few minutes ago, but it was growing with alarming speed, the Statue of Liberty transforming from a small green pin to the familiar features of the stalwart, green woman who welcomed all newcomers to America's shores.

Rodney wished with all his heart never to get close enough to see her face. He wanted time to stop here and now, forever, to just sail for eternity making love to John. But . . . that simply wasn't possible. Nor did he really want that. As fun as it had been, he didn't want life to be an endless vacation. He wanted to settle down with John in a place that they would make their home and have something real, something that would grow. It was what he'd wanted with Trent all those years ago, but even when young and naïve, there'd been a part of Rodney that had known he would never have Trent the way he wanted him. Whereas with John . . . John had given him more in ten short days than Trent had in five full years. Just the memory of what John had let him do last night melted his gut every time he thought about it.

He turned from the porthole as he heard the cabin's front door open. Bundled in a heavy black coat and scarf that made him look even more dashing and sexy than normal, John Sheppard entered the cabin. His cheeks were red from the cold, his hair an even greater wreck than normal.

"I'm all packed. The steward just took my stuff down," John said, coming up behind him. Rodney's own luggage had been carted down an hour ago.

John's arms encircled his waist from behind. Rodney leaned back against him, letting his hands cover John's where they rested on his stomach.

They both watched in silence as the distinctive lattice work of the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty grew larger and larger in the round porthole, with the rest of the New York skyline forming around them.

"There's the Empire State Building," John said, his arms tightening around him. "Six months from now, July first, five o'clock, that's where I'll be."

"Me, too. It just . . . it feels like July is years away," Rodney said, hoping he didn't sound as desperate as he felt. Yesterday morning, he hadn't even had the promise of July to get him through. He knew he was being totally foolish here, but he didn't want to lose John for even a few short months.

"I know. I don't want to leave you, either," John admitted in a strangely tight tone.

"I know what we agreed to last night, but . . ." Rodney turned in John's arms so that he was facing him, "I don't know if I can do this."

John bit his lower lip, his hands squeezing Rodney's arms where they rested on his coat. He looked as torn as Rodney felt. After staring into his face for a very long moment, John said, "Do it for me. Dump Trent, go to school, get yourself started on the path you want to follow, and I'll do it for you. I'll settle down in one place, get serious about my art, get a job if I have to . . . and then six months from today, I'll meet you on top of that tower a new man. A man you could be proud to love."

"You're already a man I'm proud to love," Rodney protested, hating how John talked about himself.

"Maybe I need to become a man I feel I can be proud of, then," John said, looking fully as miserable as Rodney himself felt, but just as determined as he was sad. "I know it's going to hurt like hell when we have to go our separate ways once the ship docks, but you do it for me, and I'll do it for you. You were right last night. We both need to be self-sufficient to make this work. And, I . . . I need to prove to myself that I can do it, that I'm something more than that guy the papers say I am." John must have read what he was thinking in his eyes, for, before Rodney could get a word out, John quickly continued with, "I know you don't see me like that. But that's how the rest of the world views me, and I need to show myself that they're wrong. I need to know I'm . . . worthy of you."

This wasn't the first time John had said something like that. As happened whenever John called himself a gigolo, Rodney had no idea how to combat that horrible self-doubt. "You don't have anything to prove. As for being worthy . . . god, John, I still don't know how I got so lucky that you even looked at me."

John's changeable eyes were glowing as he leaned in to kiss him. Rodney could feel his own desperation mirrored in John's hands and mouth. They were clinging together like they'd never let go when the deck intercom announced, "All ashore who's going ashore."

John's arms tightened around him and he kissed him harder.

Rodney held on, willing to forget about their six-month agreement, willing to forget about everything and just stay here like this with John forever, but John eventually pulled away, his whole body shaking.

None too steady himself, Rodney glumly followed John's lead as his lover's hand settled on his elbow to guide him out the door.

Rodney took a last look around the cabin. He'd never known the kind of love and happiness he'd found here. Then the door closed on that part of his life and he followed John up to the gate they'd depart from.

The huge cruise ship was angling into her dock as John and he took their places among the other passengers ready to disembark. John was always good moving through crowds and within a minute Rodney found himself with a choice spot along the rail

All around him, people were laughing and talking, excited at getting back to their lives. The only comfort he had was that John seemed as upset about this as he was. The hand gripping his elbow was getting tighter and tighter the closer the ship came to shore.

All too soon, they were docked. As the dock crew drove the mobile stairway into place, Rodney heard his name shouted from the pier below, where a large crowd had assembled to greet the arriving ship. Rodney was amazed that he could hear anything with the din rising from the mob on the dock, but Laura Beckett's voice rose above the crowd, shouting, "Rodney, Rodney!"

He turned in the direction the sound seemed to be coming from to see a very bundled up Laura and Carson standing in the front of the crowd.

"Is that your Laura?" John asked, his gaze obviously drawn by Laura's shout.

"Yes. I didn't know they were coming to pick me up," Rodney said. His gaze catching sight of a long, black limo at the other end of the crowd, he sharpened his attention. A beautiful dark haired woman was standing in front of it draped in minks, waving at the ship. "Is that Elizabeth?"

John followed the direction Rodney's chin gestured in. "Yeah, that's her."

"She's beautiful," Rodney said, not sure how he felt about that. Looking at that gorgeous woman, and knowing how unbelievably wealthy she was, it was hard to imagine anyone leaving her to be with him.

"Yes, she is," John admitted. His voice dropping to a whisper, he added, "But you're the one I'm in love with. You're the one I'm changing my life for."

It was like John read his mind or something.

Before he could respond, the gate opened and the crowd around them began a hurried rush for the stairs. John's fingers were digging so hard into his elbow now that Rodney knew he'd have bruises.

He met John's upset hazel eyes. All choked up, Rodney gruffly acknowledged, "I guess this is goodbye for now."

He could hear John's swallow from where he stood. Rodney wanted one last kiss so bad he could hardly restrain himself, but there were already dozens of cameras flashing in their direction. No way was he going to embarrass John in front of Elizabeth.

Rodney was about to offer his hand. It was the only gesture he felt appropriate, given how public they were. But then John reached out and gathered him into his arms, hugging him tight. For a moment, Rodney thought John was really going to kiss him in front of this crowd with all those cameras flashing from below, but John simply hugged him like he'd never let go.

Rodney hung on as long as he could, breathing in the familiar scent of John's expensive aftershave and the more enticing aroma of the man himself.

But eventually, John detached.

Dazed, Rodney realized that they were the last of the passengers to disembark. Every reporter was flashing his camera for all he was worth and most of the crowd below were twittering as if John really had kissed him.

Rodney felt his cheeks heating, but John gave him a gamin grin, took his elbow again, and led him down the portable stairs.

A dozen reporters clamored for John's attention at the foot of the stairs.

"Excuse me, Mr. Sheppard . . . ."

"Johnnie, look this way . . . ."

"Who's your friend, Johnnie . . . ?"

His hand locked on his arm, John sailed through them as if the gaggle of reporters and their intrusive questions and cameras were invisible. He led Rodney right to where Laura and Carson were standing waiting for him.

Laura was just standing there in her green winter coat and fluffy hat, staring at them with her jaw hanging open as John stopped in front of Carson and her.

"You must be Laura," John said, taking her hand and giving her brown woolen glove a courtly kiss.

"Ah . . . hi," she squeaked, her face going bright red.

"John, this is Carson. Carson, John Sheppard," Rodney said.

Carson probably knew less about celebrities than Rodney did. He seemed perfectly himself as he responded in his familiar Scottish burr, "Pleased to meet you."

The pack of reporters had followed them from the stairs and now had them surrounded.

John glared at the noisy interlopers and said, "Sorry about this fuss. It's a pleasure to meet you both. Rodney has told me so much about you, I feel I know you."

"Johnnie," one of the reporter's, a slender man with huge horn-rimmed glasses interrupted, "can you introduce us to your friends?"

Another said in an insinuating tone, "You do know that Elizabeth Weir is waiting on the other end of the dock and witnessed that touching scene on deck."

John stiffened, his face going hard with anger, but he ignored the questions shooting at him and sharpened his attention on Laura and Carson. "Once again, I'm sorry for this mess." Reaching out to touch Laura's arm, John leaned close to her ear and said in a voice that would travel no further than where the four of them were crowded together in the center of the media feeding frenzy, "Look after Rodney for me." John kissed her cheek. Pulling back from Laura, John shook Carson's hand again, and then turned to him.

John's eyes were totally tortured. "I – "

"I know," Rodney said, way too conscious of how many pictures were being taken of them all at the present moment. "You'd better . . . ." He gestured with his chin in the direction of the waiting limo.

John gave a grim, "Yeah." For what felt like an eternity, they stood there staring into each other's eyes beside a confused Laura and Carson while the reporters took picture after picture. Finally, John cleared his throat, forced a smile, and said, "We're doing it for each other. Remember that."

Rodney nodded. "I'll be there."

No way was he going to be stupid enough to say where or when 'there' was in front of all these media vultures.

"Me, too," John promised, adding, "I – "

Rodney read the unspoken 'love you' in John's eyes. Feeling his own start to sting, he gruffly said, "Me, too."

John looked like he was going to kiss him. Although a little panicked by the idea of doing that in front of all these strangers and cameras, Rodney braced himself. He'd do whatever John needed him to do. But John seemed to catch himself at the last moment. Instead of causing a riot, John gave his elbow a tight squeeze and then turned on his heel and forced his way through the sea of pushy reporters.

His strength deserted him at the sight of John's back making its way through the mob to that long black limo. Struck with an ominous dread that this was the last time he'd ever see John Sheppard, Rodney watched him walk away, knowing there wasn't a thing he could do to stop him.

He truly believed that John was fully committed to keeping their assignation, but six months was a long time.

"Steady there," Carson said, grabbing the elbow John had just let go of to prop him up.

"Excuse me, sir," the pushy reporter with the dark glasses stepped between Carson and him. "May I ask your name? How long have you known Johnnie Sheppard? Are you – "

"No," Laura said in a furious voice, "you may not ask his name and if you don't get out of here right now I'm going to shove that camera right down your throat."

The way Laura pushed herself between him and the reporter seemed to tell the reporter that she meant business.

"Come on," Carson said. "Let's get to the car."

"My luggage," Rodney fretted as his friends led him away. His gaze kept straying to where that fur-draped beauty now had John by the arm and was guiding him into that slick and shiny limo. As he watched it pull away, Rodney couldn't help but wonder what he had that could make John want to walk away from that.

"I'll come back for your bags later this evening," Carson said, "Let's just get you out of here."

With John gone, the majority of reporters who had followed John were now making a beeline their way, Rodney realized.

Laura ran interference all the way to the car, keeping the reporters off him with a combination of New York attitude and some well placed foot stepping. Rodney couldn't be certain, but he thought at least one camera hit the concrete in the wake of Hurricane Laura.

It seemed to take forever, but finally they were in Carson's chilly blue Chevy and speeding away from the docks. Laura was beside him in the back seat, still looking as fiercely protective of him as a she bear of her cubs. Carson sat alone up front.

"My god, what a circus," Laura said once they were finally out of sight of the dock. To Rodney's relief, no one appeared to be following them.

"Sorry," Rodney said.

"Nothing to be sorry for," Laura assured him. "In a weird way, that was almost fun."

Both Carson and he gave her nearly identical looks. Realizing that he shouldn't be able to see the driver's eyes, Rodney reminded, "Driving, Carson. Driving."

"Aye," Carson said, turning his attention back to the road.

"Your John is beautiful," Laura said.

A part of him thought that he should probably deny that John was his John, but the part of him who loved and hoped decided that he'd wait until July first to make that denial. Until then, he'd do his utmost to put his faith in John. So instead of correcting Laura, he gave a tight nod and said, "Yeah, he is."

"You two looked good together," Laura continued.

Once again, Rodney was reminded of how lucky he was to have these two special people in his life. From the very start, Laura had acted like it was no big deal that Rodney liked men. Carson had a European's sensibilities, so he was less blunt when it came to sexual issues, but he'd never been the least bit judgmental.

"John looks good with anyone," Rodney said, trying not to blush at how pleased her comment made him.

"No. I've seen hundreds of pictures of him. His eyes were glowing when they looked at you. In most of his photos, his smile never touches his eyes," Laura said. "So, what's the story? Are you going to see him again?"

John hadn't said whether their appointment was a secret. Rodney decided that even if it were, Laura and Carson were close enough to entrust with it. "He's going to leave Elizabeth and I'm going to leave Trent. We're both going to take some time to sort our lives out, find work, I'm going to start on my degree, that kind of thing. Then in six months we're going to meet on top of the Empire State Building and then move in together."

"You're moving in with John Sheppard?" Laura didn't quite squeal.

"Volume, luv," Carson said from up front.

Rodney always admired how Carson let Laura ask all the questions his Scottish sensibilities wouldn't allow him to voice. Rodney knew Carson was absorbing every word he said, for all that the man seemed totally focused on his driving.

"Yes," Rodney said.

"He's leaving that fetching heiress to be with you?" Carson asked, his tone as astonished as Rodney felt over the fact.

"Yeah," Rodney said. "I, um, can't believe it, either."

"I can't believe he's actually settling down," Laura said. "The papers are always going on about how he's a world traveler, always on the move from one exotic place to the next, with no roots anywhere."

"That's not exactly true. John's got roots. He has a grandmother in San Tropez in France," Rodney told her.

"He told you about her?" Laura sounded impressed. "He's supposed to be a man of total mystery. No one knows a thing about his past or his personal life."

Rodney hadn't known that. A little self-conscious, he said, "No, he introduced me to her."

"He took you to meet his grandmother?" Laura sounded completely astounded.

"Yeah," Rodney answered. "She's an amazing lady."

"Wow. He must really be crazy about you," Laura said.

This time Rodney knew he was blushing.

"I can't believe this," Laura said as the car finally pulled into the parking garage near their apartment building. "You and John Sheppard! It's like a fairytale. I'm so happy for you, Rodney, so happy."

Rodney could see that. She was practically bursting with excitement.

"Me, too, mate," Carson added from the front as he pulled the car into his usual parking space. "You're long overdue some happiness. This John seems like a fine chap."

"Do you even know who he is?" Rodney asked as they got out of the car.

Smiling his charming, bemused smile, Carson gave a negative shake of his curly head. "Haven't a clue. From Laura's reaction, I take it he's some movie star? It doesn't matter who he is, really, not so long as he makes you happy."

To Rodney's bewilderment, Carson appeared completely sincere.

"Um, thanks. And thanks for coming to pick me up," Rodney said, belatedly realizing that he never had acknowledged that kindness.

"No problem. I've got to get back to the hospital now," Carson said. "I'll stop by the ship and pick up your bags on the way home."

"Thanks, Carson," Rodney said.

"Till then, I'll pump him for information," Laura said in a voice that wasn't exactly joking.

"Give the man some rest. He's only just got back. It's good to have you home, Rodney," Carson said, leaning over to kiss Laura before getting back into the car.

They watched Carson pull back out of his spot. When the blue Chevy turned down the exit ramp and moved out of sight, they turned towards the elevators.

*~*~*

John could barely believe how badly he was shaking when he finally pulled himself away from Rodney and his friends. The damned paparazzi were gathered around him thick as ants on a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. He practically had to fight his way through them to where Elizabeth was waiting on the other side of the pier.

He hoped his face was more controlled than his heart, because he felt seconds away from some kind of breakdown. He knew he had to turn his life around, that he had to do it for both their sakes, but it was still killing him to walk away from Rodney this way.

Six months. It felt like forever. Rodney wasn't even out of sight yet, and he was missing him already. John had serious doubts that he could pull this off.

But . . . Rodney deserved someone he could be proud of. Despite Rodney's protests that he didn't need to prove anything to him, John still felt he had to show the world that he was more than his press. Until he could look himself in the mirror and like the person he saw there, he wasn't going to be any good to anyone.

There were so many reporters gathered here that the freezing dock actually felt warm at the moment. Another microphone was shoved in John's face. He pushed it away a little harder than normal and heard a crashing clunk as it hit the wooden pier.

God, they really were bad today, circling him like a pack of hyenas. Hating that wounded antelope feeling, John pushed forward.

What felt like hours later, Elizabeth's familiar face came into view. He was almost staggering by the time he reached the limo area.

Her chauffer shoved through the reporters, clearing a path, and Elizabeth was there by his side an instant later. Her mink coat felt very warm and soft against his hand as he brushed against her in the press of the media feeding frenzy. She grabbed hold of his arm and physically hauled him to the car.

Grodin got into the front seat, and they sped away from the dock.

"That was pretty wild," Elizabeth said. "By the way, welcome home."

She leaned over and kissed him, but not on the lips. As he'd told Rodney, theirs really was more a friendship than a love affair.

"Thanks, and hello. How are you?" John asked, settling back against the plush leather seat with an exhausted sigh.

As he relaxed against the soft leather in the comfortably warm limo, John realized that he should address the changes in their relationship. They'd planned to go to Elizabeth's Southampton beach house and spend the next week or so there planning the wedding, but he realized that after hearing his news, Elizabeth might not want his company for that long

"I think that should be my question after that mob scene." She said with a laugh. "I thought they were going to eat you alive."

"It sure felt that way," John agreed.

"So how was your trip?" Elizabeth asked, adding a meaningful, "I get the feeling there's something you need to tell me."

He hadn't really considered how hard this would be. Now that he was staring into her warm green eyes, he didn't even know how to start. How did you tell a woman you respected and cared about that you were dumping her for another man? The enormity of the task was daunting.

She was a good friend. He didn't want to hurt her, but now that he'd found Rodney, he couldn't go through with the marriage. In a perfect world, Elizabeth would understand that he'd fallen in love for the very first time, but John had never met a woman yet who could be understanding about a man not wanting to marry her.

Taking a deep breath, John warned, "You're not going to like it."

To his shock, she gave a chuckle and said in a philosophical tone, "Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to be hearing those wedding bells with you any time soon?"

"How . . . ?" he began, staring at her in shock. He didn't know how she could possibly know, let alone be so calm about their broken engagement.

"John, I never saw you hug anyone before. I've known you for ten years and you've never smiled at anyone the way you did at that man. Who is he?" She sounded more curious than angry.

Of course, she hadn't seen him with his grandmother, but Teyla was the only person other than Rodney that he'd ever felt inclined to embrace that way. Other people might have hugged him, and to be courteous, he'd always returned the gesture, but it wasn't something he normally encouraged.

"You're not . . . mad?" John couldn't help but gape at her. "How can you not be mad?"

Elizabeth ran her manicured fingers through her wild curls and said, "You're my oldest friend. You were marrying me to do me a favor. And, well," she looked a little sheepish, "I, er, haven't exactly been a good girl myself while you were away."

"You met someone?" John asked, hoping he didn't sound as relieved as he felt.

Her grin told him he'd failed miserably. "Yes. His name's Simon. He's a doctor. He served four years in a MASH unit, so he meets the prerequisites on the trust fund."

"Wow, it must be serious if you're already thinking along those lines," John commented. He knew how careful she was about being courted for her money. "When did you meet him?"

"Four months ago. You have been gone a long time," Elizabeth said.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I think I sort of panicked after we decided to get married," John admitted.

"Me, too. And, you know how these things go. As soon as you make the marriage announcement, you meet the man of your dreams," Elizabeth said with a laugh.

"You did warn me something like that might happen," John reminded, remembering how tentative Elizabeth had been when she'd suggested their marriage of convenience.

"Yes, but you didn't believe in love," Elizabeth reminded. "Remember that 'it's never going to happen' discussion? I get the feeling that's changed."

Hearing the question, John nodded. "Yeah. I can hardly believe it myself, but . . . Rodney pretty much turned my whole world around."

"You look . . . different," Elizabeth said.

"Different how?"

"I don't know. Less . . . wary, maybe?" she said. "It's hard to say. I like the new look, though."

Thinking that just because she wasn't furious with him didn't necessarily mean she'd still want him around, John said. "I realize this changes things. Do you want to drop me off at a hotel?"

"No, of course not," Elizabeth stunned him by answering. "How could I be mad at you for falling in love when the same thing's happened to me? We're just lucky it happened before the wedding."

"Yeah. It's weird, Elizabeth. I never expected to feel this way about anyone, let alone another man," he admitted.

"He must be something special," Elizabeth commented, her curiosity written all over her face.

Thinking about the self-proclaimed genius he'd given his heart to, John smiled and gave a wry, "I've never met anyone quite like him."

"So tell me about your Rodney," Elizabeth said as the limo crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to get to the highway that would take them out to her Long Island estate. Elizabeth had an apartment in uptown Manhattan, but most of the time, she preferred to be out at the beach, even off season like this.

"Only if you tell me about your Simon first," he bargained.

Unable to believe that she was still his friend and that this had really worked out for him, John sat back and listened to how she'd met Simon at a UNICEF fundraiser. A Harvard grad and self-made man, this Simon clearly had no need of Elizabeth's' money, John realized. He sounded like a perfect match for her . . . or anyone.

As she spoke, John tried to figure out how he could even describe Rodney to her. How did you explain that you'd fallen hopelessly in love with the most irritating man in the universe, and that you actually liked the traits that made him so offensive?

Relaxing against the seat as Elizabeth detailed this Simon's dozens of charitable endeavors, John thought that if she kept going on about Simon this way, that they'd be at Southampton long before it was his turn to describe Rodney. Maybe he'd think of something by then. For now, it just felt great to know he hadn't lost one of his oldest friends.

*~*~*

It was three hours before Laura finally left the penthouse. True to her word, she'd pumped Rodney for all the details of his trip. To his surprise, he hadn't minded telling her about a lot of it. He'd left out the bedroom details, of course, but sharing his experience with someone made it feel realer to him.

Now that he was finally alone, Rodney looked around his living room. He'd spent five years here, but it suddenly didn't feel like home.

Startled, he realized that home was where John was these days. It didn't matter if they were in the French Riviera, Timbuktu, or on a cruise ship. If John Sheppard were beside him, he was content with his location.

Rodney knew the next six months were going to be extremely difficult. Not seeing John for that long was already making him ache. But . . . they were doing this for each other, he reminded himself.

He had just taken off his suit and changed into a comfortable pair of jeans and a tee shirt when he heard the front door open. He knew Laura wouldn't be content until she'd wrangled every intimate detail of his time with John out of him. Sitting down on the end of his bed, he took a sip of his fifth coffee of the night and called out, "I am not saying another word about the trip until morning, so you might as well give up now . . . Trent."

Rodney was startled by how shocked he was to see Trent standing in his bedroom door. In his mind, they'd been over for weeks. He realized now that Trent had no way of knowing that.

He'd always thought Trent very good looking, but taking in the perfectly unwrinkled suit, neat hair, and classically handsome features, Rodney was suddenly struck by how utterly dull Trent really looked. John had more personality and flair in a single lock of his messy hair than Trent had in his entire body.

"You're back, then," Trent said, sounding none too pleased.

"As you can see." Rodney didn't even try for a smile or attempt to make his voice sound happy.

"I suppose you have some explanation for this," Trent said, shoving a newspaper at him.

Rodney just managed to keep the paper from knocking his coffee mug out of his hand. Putting the mug down on the nightstand, he asked, "Explanation for what?"

But then his gaze fell upon the front page of the paper Trent had pushed into his hands. He supposed he should have been shocked to see a picture of John Sheppard hugging him on the front page, but after the feeding frenzy at the dock, he wasn't really surprised. "Oh, that."

"Yes, that!" Trent shouted, his handsome face not so handsome as it puckered with rage and turned bright red. "What the hell were you doing touching that . . . hustler? You go away for a week or two – "

"He's not a hustler. And, just for the sake of accuracy, it was three weeks," Rodney corrected, furious, but holding it in check. "You were given the opportunity to come with me. You chose not to, so it's none of your business what I did on the trip."

"None of my – what the hell do you think you're playing at? You go off and sleep with some tramp and get your picture on the front page of every scandal sheet – " Trent raged.

"First off, I'm not playing, not anymore. Second, if you ever call John Sheppard a tramp or anything like it in my presence again, you're going to find out how long it takes for your new Jag to burn to a cinder. I suggest you get out of here. Now," Rodney said, holding those furious eyes.

"You're throwing me out?" Trent sounded utterly shocked. Clearly, he hadn't expected anything like this.

"Yeah. I should have done it years ago," Rodney said, keeping his voice calm because he could see how he was unnerving Trent by not getting upset. "I'll be moving out of the penthouse just as soon as I find another place. I should be gone within a week. I'll leave the keys with the janitor."

Trent no longer seemed quite so self-righteous. "You're . . . moving out?"

"I just said that. What are you, deaf?" Rodney said.

"But . . . what about . . . us?" Trent asked.

Rodney couldn't stop himself from laughing in Trent's face. "Us? When has there ever been an us? I can't believe how much time I wasted trying to make this work. But I'm not throwing away any more of my life on a loser like you. If you haven't realized it by now, we're through."

"Loser? Who do you think you're talking to?" Trent demanded. "And what do you mean 'we're through'? How are you going to support yourself? Or is pretty boy going to keep you now?"

"I told you before to lay off John. Get the hell out of here. Go back to your girlfriend. Maybe she can help you with your projects," Rodney said.

At the mention of his projects, Trent's face paled. "You do realize that the company is in serious trouble, that we've lost more than four million dollars in the last three weeks?"

"Not my problem," Rodney said, trying not to be pleased that Trent's precious business was falling apart without his input.

"You can't just – " Trent began.

Rodney cut him off. "I can and am. Now get out of here before I call the police. Or better yet, the papers. Maybe you'd like your picture on the front page under a Jilted Lover headline?"

Rodney didn't know for sure if the media would be interested in him without John in the picture, but it was enough of a threat to make Trent wet himself.

"How can you do this to me after all I've done for you?" Trent asked, seeming genuinely distressed.

"By 'done for me' you would be referring to exploiting me both sexually and intellectually?" Rodney challenged. If someone had told him a month ago that he could be this cold and cruel to Trent, he wouldn't have believed it. Even as he spoke, he realized that he was angrier at himself than at Trent for allowing himself to be used that way, but it felt too good to finally get all this out in the open for Rodney to have any true regrets. Trent had this coming, in spades.

"Exploit – " Trent began.

"That's the kindest word for it. Just get out of here. Before I call your father and tell him just who's been handling his projects for the last five years," Rodney threatened.

"You wouldn't!" Trent sounded like a three year old.

"Try me." Rodney challenged. "I don't have anything to lose, after all. You're the one who stands to lose his job and his inheritance when Daddy finds out who you've been sleeping with."

"Are you . . . threatening to blackmail me?" Trent now looked as though he might have soiled himself.

Hating how weak this man was whom he'd once thought so highly of, Rodney gave what he knew to be a wicked smile and said, "Now, there's a thought." When it really appeared as if Trent might collapse into tears, Rodney became disgusted with the whole scene. "Oh for . . . I'm not going to blackmail you. I have better things to do with my time. Just get the hell out of here and don't come back."

To his horror, there really were tears in Trent's eyes. Doubtless, they were inspired by the abrupt downswing Trent's life was about to take without his brains to support him, but it was more of a genuine emotion than he'd ever seen in Trent before.

"You're gonna regret this. Mark my words, you'll be sorry you screwed this up," Trent sobbed, finally moving towards the door.

"I doubt that," Rodney said to Trent's back as the man beat a hasty retreat.

Rodney looked for a reaction as the front door slammed. He'd really thought he'd loved this man once. There should be some kind of sorrow, but the only thing he could find inside himself was an intense feeling of relief.

He knew what love was now, and Trent definitely hadn't been love.

John was love, and in six short months, John would be his again. That was what he had to concentrate on, not this pettiness.

Hoping that the rest of the six months would be less stressful than the first day, Rodney got up to lock and chain the front door and prepare for bed.

*~*~*

It was amazing how fast six months could pass when a person actually had work to do. Granted, spending the day painting mightn't be most people's idea of hard work, but it was a steadier and more productive occupation than anything John had done since leaving school.

These months hadn't been easy. Hell, there had been days when he hadn't known where his next meal was coming from, and at one point he'd gotten so desperate that he'd actually given in to necessity and taken a real job painting advertisements on rooftop billboards, but he'd never given up his dream of painting. Because to give up on painting was to break faith with Rodney, and he simply wasn't going to do that, no matter how hungry or depressed he became. So he did it for Rodney and for their future together.

Somehow, he'd actually made things work out. That chance meeting with his old school chum Henri Colbert had been more than fortuitous. Henri had been as much of an art lover in school as John himself, but unlike him, Henri had never abandoned his true love. Henri's Paris gallery was so successful that it had branched out to both London and New York. When John had told him that he was painting again, Henri had insisted on coming by John's Tomkins Park loft to see his work . . . and the rest was history. Henri had agreed to agent for him and had hung John's work in choice spots in his shop, so he hadn't had to sell his paintings on the street like Rodney had suggested.

It hadn't happened overnight, but eventually one of his pieces sold, and then another, and then another. All for over five hundred dollars a shot. It seemed that every time a piece sold, Henri tagged another $250 onto the next painting's price tag. John's last piece had cleared over a thousand dollars. Granted, a few thousand dollars wasn't exactly making a living, but it was a start he could be proud of.

The fact that he had done it without trading on his celebrity was another source of pride to him. Henri had argued until his face turned red that John should paint under his own name, but John had known that would be a cheat. People wouldn't be buying his paintings because they liked his art. They would be buying them for the novelty of owning something done by the infamous Johnnie Sheppard. So, he painted under John Emmagan, in his grandmother's honor, and hoped for the best.

Now that July first was actually here, John couldn't wait to see his lover. He had so much to tell Rodney. He'd missed him so much. It had been so hard to keep from breaking down and seeking out Rodney before the agreed upon time period had passed, but he'd wanted to be someone that Rodney could be proud of, and it was only now that he was actually starting to sell some of his art that John felt comfortable with himself.

He paused before his bedroom mirror to fuss with his tie. He'd changed the damn thing three times already. He didn't know why he felt compelled to dress to meet Rodney. He knew Rodney wasn't going to care what he was wearing, only that he showed up. But it still felt like a momentous occasion to him, like a wedding or something equally important, so he was wearing his favorite black suit, with the light blue shirt, and lavender tie – if he didn't switch it again.

Deciding that this was as good as it was going to get, John put his wallet in his pocket – a new brown leather one, not the ornate gift from Gabriella – and headed out the door.

He knew that he was being foolish leaving so early. It only took a half hour to make it from the Village up to 34th Street, so an hour and a half was being a bit excessive, but he wasn't taking any chances on the subway being delayed. Rodney was not going to think for one single second that he'd been stood up if John had anything to say about it.

Penn Station was its usual mob scene. John shot up the nearest stairway and walked the four blocks over to the Empire State Building. It was a beautiful, sunny day, not too humid for July, so his suit would be none the worse for wear when he got there.

The Empire State Building rose like an art deco rocket above Fifth Avenue, filigreed and breathtakingly silver in the afternoon sun.

The lobby was cool and welcoming when he stepped in, despite the fact that it was teeming with tourists. John couldn't help but admire the granite, marble, and stainless steel entry. The metal mosaic on the lobby wall, depicting the building as the center of the universe was a stunning piece of art in its own right. The enormous bronze medallions dedicated to the craftsmen who'd built the building back in the 30s were nothing short of spectacular.

As he passed through the lobby, he noticed the Riverboat Restaurant on the ground floor. It had been a while since he'd eaten in such a high price establishment, but he thought it might be a good place to take Rodney to celebrate.

John bought his ticket and joined the stream of tourists entering the elevator that would take him up to the building's Observation Deck on the 86th floor. His heart was beating fast already. But, then, he'd been so excited about this day finally arriving that he'd barely slept at all the last week. He could only imagine the state Rodney must be in by now. Calm was not a trait John associated with his lover.

The chrome elevator doors parted and John stepped out onto the Observation Deck with the twenty or thirty other people who'd shared his elevator. The deck was a wall of windows, with a door at the far end that led out to an area that was open to the air and elements.

Because he had so much time, John stepped out. The wind at this altitude was intense. John was surprised by how cold it was out on the sunny deck.

Finding a dime in his pocket, he tried out one of those enormous binocular machines when it opened up and spent a good five minutes viewing Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Jersey. The view from this height was really quite fantastic. John thought he might paint it some day.

His dime ran out and he returned to the more sheltered interior, glad to get out of the wind.

Realizing that he still had nearly forty-five minutes to go, he took up a position at the window opposite the elevators, so that he'd be the first thing Rodney saw when he stepped out onto the Observation Deck.

While John stood there watching load after load of people depart the elevators, his thoughts turned to his lover.

He wondered what school Rodney had gone to and what he was studying. Whatever it was, he was sure his friend was probably at the top of his class. There were a million things he wanted to know – where Rodney was living now, how he was managing going it alone after such a long relationship, how he was handling the separation. The list was endless, and the best part was that he was going to be able to ask Rodney all these things in the flesh in less than an hour. Providing they weren't arrested for lewd and indecent behavior the moment they laid eyes on each other. John was laying no bets that he'd be able to restrain himself after so long a wait.

The truly amazing part of the whole thing was that, for the first time ever, John had absolutely no doubts that someone was going to come through for him. He knew that they'd only been together ten short days and that the magic of a shipboard romance faded fast when a person returned to the real world, but . . . he also knew his Rodney. If anyone had ever loved him in his life, it was Rodney McKay. No way would Rodney disappoint him. The guy was solid as a rock.

Catching sight of his reflection in the chrome frame of the window, John smiled. He really liked this new optimistic version of himself. He liked knowing there was someone he could count on, no matter what. And he was pretty sure he'd transformed himself into the kind of man Rodney could count on. These last six months, he'd lived for this reunion. Every hour of every day was dedicated to this one goal, being good enough for Rodney. Now the moment was almost here. He was someone Rodney could respect now. He couldn't help but feel that everything was going to work out for them.

Grand'Mere Teyla had told him in her letters how Rodney was writing to her regularly. He hadn't really expected that, but then nothing surprised him about this incredible man who'd actually made him like being taken. It really did seem as though loving Rodney had turned his entire life around.

God, he couldn't wait to see Rodney. He didn't think he'd ever been this excited about anything.

Aware that he had nearly a half hour left to wait, John did his best to keep his excitement in check so he didn't scare the tourists, and leaned back against the chrome support behind him to wait. Despite his best efforts, his smile grew to a grin when he realized how provocative his pose was and that it was going to be the first thing Rodney saw when he stepped out of the elevator.

*~*~*

He was going to be late, Rodney thought. He'd tried to keep July first open on his calendar, but he had to work his tutoring around other students' schedules and Dr. Zelenka had all those papers he'd needed help with, and time had just flown by him. Now, at 4:21 PM, Rodney stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 4th Street in his best blue suit, trying to catch a cab.

Finally, one of the big yellow Ramblers stopped and he climbed in. "The Empire State Building, fast as you can."

"Sure thing, buddy," the heavy set cabdriver answered.

Rodney did his best not to panic. Surely, if he were a few minutes late, John would wait for him. But . . . he didn't want John to think that he wasn't coming. He'd worked so damn hard these last six months to pull everything together that he wasn't going to let anything spoil their special day.

NYU mightn't be the best school when it came to the hard sciences, but it had been the only university willing to allow him to take an accelerated undergrad program. Even for someone as smart as he was, preparing for all those exams was murder, especially since he was working his tail off tutoring all the hours God gave to try to make his rent.

He'd been so damn careful with the money he'd won at Monte Carlo. His tuition was paid in advance for the next two years. He'd paid four months of his rent off before his winnings had run out. The only true indulgence he'd spent the money on was a secondhand upright piano that he'd bought in the Waverley Music Shop for a hundred dollars. He'd had to restring and retune the piano, but once he'd gotten it in shape, it had played like a dream. And, in all fairness, it wasn't really a frivolous waste of money. Tutoring wasn't quite enough to support the apartment and feed him, so he'd started teaching piano on the side.

The two jobs didn't leave him much time for studying and he felt like he was run ragged most days, but . . . all the hard work had paid off. July first was finally here, and in less than forty minutes, he would see John again.

That was assuming the cab ever made it out of the Village. He'd known better than risk the subway during rush hour, but it looked like Seventh Avenue was crawling as well. It seemed to take forever to make 14th Street, and another eon to get to 23rd. By the time they were at 29th Street, Rodney's watch was edging on to five to the hour. From every appearance, it would take another twenty minutes just to make 34th Street.

Rodney was no athlete, but he knew he could make better time on foot. He shoved three dollars at the driver and said, "Thanks. I think I'll walk the rest of the way."

Then he was racing for all he was worth through the rush hour crowd. Within moments, his shirt was soaked, and he could feel his hair getting sweatier by the moment.

Christ, he was going to be a mess when he got to John. But the Empire State Building was just another block away, and he could always shower as soon as they went home. Wherever home would be now that they were going to live together.

John was probably already waiting up there, Rodney thought, his eyes fixed on the top of that stunning building. Too fraught to slow down when the streetlight turned yellow, he rushed to cross that final street.

A horn blared to his left, and he realized that he'd once again fallen back into childhood patterns of looking right first. Rodney heard the horn, but he never saw the car that was speeding to make a left turn through the crosswalk he was rushing across. All he knew was the impact. One second, he was hurrying across the street, his eyes on that shining tower where John was waiting for him, and the next, he was sailing through the air.

Everything got confused after that. He thought he hit something really hard, maybe a streetlight or telephone pole. There was an excruciating pain in his back and head and then he was falling to the sidewalk, falling impossibly far down to the sidewalk, like he'd tumbled from the top of the Empire State Building.

People were screaming all around him. A dark haired man in a business suit and an old lady were rolling him over and peering down at him.

"J-John?" Rodney tried to think, to stay conscious. He had to meet John. But a fog was taking his brain as a red haze covered his gaze as he looked up into the strangers' concerned faces.

Somewhere in the distance he could hear a siren wailing.

For a long time after that, Rodney didn't know what was happening to or around him. He had a brief flash of being inside some kind of a vehicle, probably an ambulance, then there were more strangers' voices, a lot of poking, prodding, and then he was being rushed down a long green corridor on some type of gurney. His last sight as he finally lost his battle to stay conscious was a blinding light overhead.

*~*~*

Not much street noise made it up to the 86th floor, John thought as he watched an ambulance with flashing lights speed by on the street below. There'd been a lot of activity going on down there a few minutes ago, but things were quieting down now.

He checked his watch. Five minutes to go. Knowing Rodney, he'd probably be late, John thought, affectionately recalling his lover's complete lack of time sense.

Almost too excited to stand still, John settled back against the wall beside the window to count down those final few seconds.

The elevator doors opened at five o'clock on the button and dozens of people streamed out. Rodney wasn't with that group, so John leaned back against the wall to await the next batch of tourists.

Rodney wasn't with that crowd, either. Or the group after that, or the dozen or so elevator loads that were discharged in the next twenty minutes.

When his watch proclaimed the time as 5:30, John felt the first shiver of doubt slide through him. But . . . a half hour wasn't all that late. Rodney could be stuck in traffic or in a subway delay. If Rodney were working, he mightn't have even been able to leave his job until five. It wasn't like his lover had had any way to contact him to tell him that he'd be late.

His tension building, John forced himself to settle back against the wall to wait. But his smile was gone now.

Inside, a desperate mantra kept repeating itself, Please, Rodney, please, don't do this to me.

The new him insisted that Rodney would be here. Granted, he was late, but there was no doubt a perfectly acceptable reason for the delay. That faith carried John through until 7:38, when he seriously began to consider the possibility that he'd been stood up.

But the elevators kept discharging dozens of people, and there was every possibility that something unexpected had kept Rodney really late, so John was determined to give Rodney every benefit of the doubt and wait here until it became obvious to even the new him that Rodney wasn't coming.

His stomach clenched in a tight knot, John stood in front of those elevators, waiting, and waiting.

Around 9:30 PM the crowds started to thin out. The elevator attendant, a handsome Hispanic man in his twenties, began asking John every time the elevator opened, "Going down, sir?"

John would just shake his head and let the elevator pick up the few stragglers still up here.

He didn't know how long he should wait at this point. Rodney was nearly five hours late. Even the new, optimistic John couldn't come up with a plausible excuse.

But to walk away was to admit defeat, to admit that in the end, he'd been nothing more to Rodney than he'd been to all the other men in his life, just a piece of worthless flesh, to be used and discarded.

Rodney wouldn't let him down like this. There had to be a reason he wasn't here.

The cynic that had gotten him through his life thus far suggested what that reason was, but John ignored him as best he could. He had to believe in Rodney. If Rodney let him down, then that meant that he'd been wrong about everything. That it hadn't been love. That, for all that Rodney had treated him like he was something special, in the end he'd just been a body in the night.

But . . . Rodney had written to his grandmother. John grasped that fact in absolute desperation. Why would Rodney do that if he weren't intending to keep their assignation? There had to be a reason for the lateness. All he had to do was wait. Rodney would come. He had to.

It wasn't until the thunderstorms moved in around midnight and the tower was lit with the dangerous, crashing bolts of electricity that John was finally forced to accept the bitter truth.

Rodney wasn't coming. The one person he'd let himself love in forever had let him down. He knew he probably should have expected this. After all, when had anyone ever come through for him? But . . . he'd really believed in Rodney. To have to accept the fact that everything between them had been a lie, that his instincts had been so totally wrong in this . . . that hurt more than anything John had ever experienced.

He felt like a complete idiot. It was after midnight. How could he have been so fucking stupid as to wait seven hours? What kind of pathetic loser was he? Seven hours! Anybody with a whisper of self-esteem would have cleared out of here after 6 PM, but no, he had to wait until fucking midnight for it to finally penetrate his thick skull that he'd been stood up.

He wanted to be angry, he wanted to hate Rodney, but he'd known from the start that decent folk like Rodney didn't get involved with guys like him. No, if anyone were to blame here, it was himself. He knew what he was, even if Rodney hadn't. But it looked like Rodney had finally wised up.

Having no clue what he was going to do with all his tomorrows now, John left to drown the new him in drink.

*~*~*

Fate had a really cruel sense of humor. Rodney had learned that around the time his father walked out on them when he was seven. Prior to that, his one wish had always been that his parents would stop fighting. He'd never thought to amend the wish with the addendum 'and get along'. He'd gotten his wish, with a vengeance. Not only did his folks stop fighting, they never spoke again.

But nothing he'd ever experienced had prepared him for this. To be so close to meeting John . . . and have everything ripped from him at the moment he was anticipating fulfilling his greatest dream.

Pain blurred his awareness of his state during those first few confused days. He knew there had been several surgeries and that he'd nearly died twice, but at the time all there had been was confusion, pain, and precious oblivion.

Rodney opened his eyes now, lucid for the first time in he didn't know how long. He was still in a hospital bed, in what looked to be a private room. That much he'd figured out from the incoherent snatches he remembered. He tried to sit up, but . . . he was restrained by some weird looking pulley devices. It took him a minute to realize he was in traction. His left arm was in a plaster cast. The left side of his face and what felt like his whole head were swathed in enough bandages to do a mummy proud. Also, it seemed like he had a dozen machines hooked up to him and a couple of IVs going.

That couldn't be good. It was nearly another three minutes before another chilling discovery penetrated. He couldn't feel his legs . . . at all.

Terrified, he tried to look down the length of his white-sheet draped body, just to assure himself his legs were still there, but he couldn't lift his head enough to see past his chest. He wasn't even aware that he was screaming until the nurse rushed in.

"Mr. McKay, Mr. McKay, please calm down," the buxomly brunette nurse ordered.

"My legs . . . I can't feel my legs!" he shouted.

"I know. Your doctor will be . . . oh, here he is. He's awake, Dr. Beckett," the nurse said to someone on the other side of the room, the side Rodney couldn't move his head enough to see.

A very worried looking Carson came into his line of vision. The grey set to Carson's complexion and the heavy purple bags beneath his eyes did nothing to reassure Rodney.

"You're awake. Welcome back," Carson was trying hard to be cheerful.

Rodney's blood ran cold in his veins. "My legs . . . are-are they gone?"

"No, no, they're still there," Carson assured him. He didn't look like he was lying.

"But . . . what's happened? What am I doing here? Why can't I feel anything down there?" All his fears tumbled out in a panicked rush.

"You were in an accident, Rodney. A car ran a red light and sent you flying. But you're going to be all right now," Carson said.

That was a lie. Those red-ribboned blue eyes couldn't even hold his while Carson spoke.

"You're lying," Rodney shouted again. "What's wrong with me? What aren't you telling me?"

"Calm down, please," Carson pleaded.

"Carson, tell me the truth! What's wrong with me?" Rodney pleaded, not sure he really wanted to know the answer, but knowing he wouldn't rest until he knew the worst.

Carson seemed to brace himself with a deep breath before saying, "You have a cracked vertebra, Rodney, and there's been some nerve damage. I did what I could in your initial surgery, and one of the top orthopedic and spinal specialists did another procedure on you."

"A cracked vertebra . . . that's . . . that's a broken back, isn't it?" Rodney tried not to panic.

"Your spine was banged around some. There was some swelling, but the spinal chord itself wasn't broken. Just the one vertebra – "

"JUST? I CAN'T FEEL MY LEGS!!!!" Rodney yelled again.

"I know," Carson said, looking haunted.

"Is-is it permanent?" Rodney forced himself to ask.

"I'm sorry, Rodney, we just don't know. We have every hope the vertebra will heal, but nerve damage is always chancy. It's hard to predict . . . ."

Rodney turned his head away. It was the only thing he really could move at the moment. With the way they had him trussed up, he couldn't even raise his hand to brush the tears away.

"We have every reason to expect that you'll walk again," Carson was saying beside him, in a voice that sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

Cripple . . . he was a cripple. There would be no life with John, no life at all. His world was going to be nothing but wheelchairs and pitying glances. That was, if he were lucky. There was every chance that his paralysis would be so extreme that he couldn't sit up in a wheelchair.

Rodney knew he had a tendency to overreact to situations, but for once he knew he wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill. This was huge. He'd never felt so scared or alone, for all that Carson was sitting there patting his hand.

The tears coming faster, he tried to blink them away.

John. He needed John here, but . . . how could he inflict this on him? John was so vital and beautiful . . . the idea of chaining him to a useless cripple was unconscionable. He knew John would come if he sent for him, and he was almost selfish enough to do it, but . . . .

John Sheppard was an honorable man. He'd honor his commitments, even if it meant tying himself to someone who could never be whole, someone who would never be attractive or able to make love or . . . .

No, he didn't want John staying with him out of pity. The very idea made him cringe. He mightn't have much left, but he still had his pride. The next time he saw John Sheppard, he wanted to run into his arms. And until he was able to do that . . . well, he'd just have to go it alone.

Rodney felt himself begin to shake. God, he wasn't strong enough for this. He just wasn't . How was he going to get through this?

A white-sleeved hand holding a tissue came into his range of vision. Carson.

The hand swabbed his tears away and then cupped his cheek to turn his face back.

"It will be all right, Rodney. I promise," Carson said, in that same tone that was more hopeful than honest.

But right now, Rodney needed hope, even if it was false hope.

Too scared to even try to think about his future, Rodney cried like he hadn't cried since a child, while Carson stood there wiping the tears away and offering what reassurances he could.

It wasn't as good as having John there, but . . . it was way better than being alone.

*~*~*

There had to be some kind of unwritten universal law that when bad things happened, they happened in bunches.

John was barely three days into his drunk, the new him fighting tooth and nail to survive as the cynic in him tried to drown the stupid bastard, when the telegraph from Marius arrived.

He hated to fly because it always reminded him of his father, the general, but he was on the first flight he could get to France. He rented a car and did about a hundred to make it to the coast, but when he got to the hospital, he was still too late. Grand'Mere Teyla was gone. Passed away peacefully in her sleep in the intensive care unit while he was still somewhere over the Atlantic.

Now he stood in her empty sitting room at the villa, staring around the familiar furniture, feeling her presence everywhere he looked.

He didn't think he could take this. No matter what he did or what trouble he'd gotten into, Grand'Mere Teyla had always been there for him. Now he was truly alone, without a soul in the world.

It was strange, but standing here in her space, he could almost see her sitting at the piano, taking pleasure in the music she'd loved so deeply. For some reason, she wasn't alone at the piano bench. When John looked at her specter, he saw Rodney sitting there beside her, with the crooked smile he loved so much on his face and his eyes glowing with joy.

A chill passed through John, and when he blinked the images were gone and it was just an empty piano bench again.

That was one thing he hadn't considered, that Rodney hadn't made their appointment because Rodney was dead.

John shook himself out of the morbid thought. Rodney wasn't dead. Just because he hadn't shown up didn't mean the man was in a grave. And, how pathetic was he that he'd be willing to think such a thing rather than face the painful truth?

Pushing all thoughts of his ex-lover out of his mind, John moved to the blue velvet chair that had been his grandmother's favorite and placed his hand on the soft cushion at its back. He could almost feel her warmth there.

When he raised his hand, he found it moving to the other chair, the red one that Rodney had been sitting in that day. God, this hurt so much. He didn't know which was worse, Teyla's death or Rodney's rejection. They had both left him broken.

He hardly knew who he was right now; he felt so dispossessed. Rodney's desertion had really damaged his hard-won battle for self-esteem, but . . . even though he wasn't that optimistic guy who'd been waiting on top of the Empire State Building a few days ago, he wasn't the same libertine he'd been prior to meeting Rodney. Something had changed in him, for the better.

"Seignior?"

John jumped at the quiet word.

"Ah, Marius," he tried for a smile as Marius came over to shake his hand and pat his back.

"She was a great lady. She will be missed," Marius said in French, his dark eyes as red as John's had been when he'd seen them in the mirror before the funeral this morning.

"Thank you." It was strange how easily he fell back into his grandmother's native language.

"Oh, no. It is you who are owed the thanks. I don't know what we would have done if you'd decided to sell the place," Marius said.

John still felt uncomfortable at how grateful the man was to keep his job. "How could I sell it? My grandmother and grandfather are buried here."

"She wanted me to give you this," Marius said, crossing to a cherry wood breakfront on the far side of the room. John instantly recognized the heavy grey shawl Marius withdrew from the drawer as his grandfather's. "She said it was to go to your friend, Mr. McKay."

It was like a kick in the balls, unexpectedly hearing Rodney's name like that hurt so bad. Once again, that day Rodney and he had spent here with Teyla passed through his mind. It was probably one of the happiest days of his life. But both those special people were lost to him now. Barely holding in his reaction, John bit his lower lip, nodded, and promised, "I'll see he gets it."

Marius stayed to offer his condolences for a while longer, but finally John was alone.

Wondering if he'd ever get used to the ghosts in this place, he took the shawl to his bedroom to add to his suitcase. He wasn't looking forward to tracking Rodney down to give him this thing, but . . . maybe he could mail it once he learned his address. It wasn't like Rodney was going to want to see him ever again.

*~*~*

In his next few weeks in the hospital, Rodney learned new meanings to the words pain and suffering. There were degrees of pain, and he realized that for all his respiration problems, allergies, low blood sugar, and other health issues, he'd never really known true agony before. Even when that mineshaft had collapsed on him and broken his right leg when he was seventeen, the pain had been nothing compared to what he endured on a daily basis now.

The traction became a torture device. Within three days of regaining consciousness, he would have given his right arm simply to roll over onto his side. There was swelling in his spinal area and skull, which hurt more than anything he could remember. He'd also received a broken arm and abrasions over most of the left side of his body when he'd fallen to the concrete. It had taken him a while to realize how bad his face had been messed up, but Carson assured him that the ugly red stretches would heal in time.

But the worst experience of all was when he'd had to have the Myelogram. They'd shot X-ray dye directly into the internal column of his spine, using a needle that looked too huge to treat an elephant. The pain had been excruciating. To add insult to injury, he'd had to lie perfectly still for twelve hours afterwards for the dye to be effective. Laura had sat there with him the entire time, holding his hand. She hadn't left his side once during the twelve hours.

Perhaps the most difficult part was being completely dependent on the mercy of strangers. There was very little he could do for himself. Laura and Carson were practically living in his hospital room, and it wasn't so bad when they helped him. But even they had to eventually go home. Then he had to hope that the nurse who answered the call button was in a good mood and that he could hold onto his temper long enough not to totally alienate her.

Every day seemed to be a new journey into pain. When they'd finally released him from traction, he'd thought things would start improving, but that was when he was introduced to the joy of spinal headaches. As long as he lay flat on his back, he was okay, but the instant he'd sit up straight, it felt like his head was smashed into a concrete wall. The pain was phenomenal.

Through it all, he tried to distract himself by reliving his days with John in his mind. Laura had brought one of the framed photos he'd taken of John and him on his cruise and placed it on his hospital table where he could see it, but the staff kept knocking it over when they cleared away his meals and he couldn't reach it to pick it back up.

There were times he felt like he was being haunted by John. He was on some pretty major pain killers at first. Once or twice, Rodney swore that John was sitting in the chair beside his bed, but when he'd speak to him, the image would either disappear or it would turn out to be either Laura or Carson.

Now, after a month of being awarded the Worst Patient Ever merit badge at least twice a day, he was finally being released. His legs were still useless lumps, but at least he could move himself from the bed to the wheelchair and the wheelchair to the toilet now. It was truly pathetic how much of an accomplishment that felt like.

The second he sat up straight in the wheelchair to leave, the pain slammed in and his brain felt like it might drip out his ears under the resulting pressure, but he was going home and not even one of those damn spinal headaches could spoil that.

"You all right?" Laura checked, fussing with the wheelchair's footrests.

"Fine," he lied.

"Carson's just gone to get the car. It will be out front in a moment," Laura said. She looked ecstatic.

Rodney didn't understand why she was even still here after the abuse he'd dumped on her the last few weeks. But there she was.

She leaned down and gave his partially bald scalp a kiss.

They'd had to shave the left side of his head for the surgery to relieve the liquid building up in his skull that first day. He had a trail of stitches there that made him look like Frankenstein. He only hoped his hair would grow back enough to cover it.

"Well, here we go," Laura said as a slender blonde nurse came to wheel Rodney out.

The August day was hot and humid, adding to his misery as they waited in the bright, unrelenting sun waiting for Carson to pull up.

Just getting from the wheelchair into the backseat of the Chevy was a major production, and more painful and exhausting than any simple movement should be. Still, he'd be home in half an hour, so Rodney felt that it was worth the effort.

Despite the pounding headache, he was almost happy, until he was faced with the ordeal of the three little steps that led from the sidewalk up to the old brick apartment building's vestibule. His left arm was still in the cast, so he couldn't even wheel himself. He didn't think Laura was strong enough to haul both him and the wheelchair up those steps. He'd never thought about them when he could walk, but now that he was trapped in this chair, those three little stairs seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

But, then, his entire life had become an insurmountable obstacle, so why should his home be any different?

"Don't worry," Laura said from where she stood behind the wheelchair. "I've got you."

Carson was off parking the car. With the scarcity of parking in Manhattan, he might be gone for days.

"Laura, you can't – " Rodney protested.

But she was already turning his chair around and backing it up the stairs.

The building thankfully had an elevator, so she didn't have to haul him up the two flights to his place.

However, when she wheeled him into the small three room apartment, it became clear that it hadn't been designed with the handicapped in mind. His wheelchair barely cleared the bathroom door and was totally squashed between the tub and wall when he had to use the facilities. Everything in the kitchen was too high for him to easily access. The kitchen sink was completely out of his range.

The wheelchair could fit into the living room and it wasn't too difficult for Rodney to make it from the wheelchair to the couch, but if someone else wanted to use the furniture, they had to move the wheelchair to the bedroom so the person would be able to reach the armchairs; the place was that small.

"God, if this is that hard, what am I going to do about school?" Rodney couldn't help but fret as his chair became jammed between an armchair and the coffee table.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I talked to Dr. Zelenka when he was in to see you last week. Carson doesn't think your headaches and those muscle spasms will let you attend class for a while, so Dr. Zelenka agreed to bring the assignments for all your classes here to you. He spoke to your other professors. They all agreed to allow him to administer whatever tests and finals you need here. Radek said you could make up the lab work when you're back on your feet again," Laura said.

"He did?" Rodney was stunned. Even though he'd been working as Dr. Zelenka's assistant for the last six months, he'd still been surprised when the brilliant physicist had dropped by to see him in the hospital.

"Yes, Rodney," Laura said in a teasing tone. "He said that you're the most brilliant student he's ever had and that it would be a crime against science for your brain to be wasted. I'm breaking my word by telling you that."

Despite the extreme physical discomfort he was experiencing, her words brought a smile to his face. "He said that?"

"Yes," she said. He watched her take one of his prescription bottles out of her purse and shake a pill out, then move to the kitchen to get him some water to take with the pill.

When she returned, she silently held out the pill and water glass.

Rodney took the little white pill without protest. They were supposed to help his headaches, but all they did was make him sleepy.

"He's really going to bring my work by? Why would he do that?" Rodney wasn't used to people being kind to him. Laura and Carson were the exception, rather than the rule. And, John, of course, no one had ever been as good to him as John.

"Because he likes you. He only lives four blocks away. You're on his way home," Laura said.

He couldn't tell if she were lying. Laura was good at bluffing, as he'd learned when she'd taught him poker last year.

"Oh."

"So you don't have to worry about school for a while," Laura said.

"But what about the rent? If I'm not at school, I can't tutor. For that matter, the rent was due the week . . . of the accident. Christ, I'd better call the landlord and – "

"Don't worry about that. It's been taken care of," Laura said. "I bought some chocolate cake at the grocery store. Do you want a piece?"

Rodney didn't know whether to be mad or grateful. He settled for a tense, "I can't live off you guys. You shouldn't have – "

"Rodney, you were in traction, for God's sake. What were we supposed to do? Hound you for your checkbook? Look, Carson's been a wreck over this. You know how he gets when a patient reaches the limits of medicine's ability to treat them. You're family, not just a patient, so it's been killing him that he can't help you, that we just have to wait for the nerves to heal."

"If they heal," he said in a low voice.

But she heard him. "They're going to heal. You're going to walk again."

"You can't know that," Rodney argued, letting his depression and pain get the worst of him.

"Yes, I can," Laura insisted. "You're the most brilliant, determined person I know, after Carson. If anyone can will himself to get better, it's you."

Touched by her earnestness, he resurrected his humor for a fleeting moment, "I'm far more brilliant than Carson."

She grinned at his effort. "But I'm not crazy in love with you, so I'll never see anyone as more brilliant than Carson."

"Getting back to the rent . . . ."

"Rodney, that was something he could do to help. So, please, don't make him feel bad about it?"

To his horror, he felt his eyes start to sting. "Laura, I can't – "

"I know you don't want that kind of help. I was thinking about how you could, um, work from home until you're feeling better and I came up with a plan."

Rodney's first impulse was terror. He'd been the victim of her plans far too often in the past to blithely go along with them.

"What kind of plan?" he asked warily.

"Well, I know you can't tutor if you're not on campus, but I thought that maybe you could take on more piano students until you're better. I know you have a few students now, but if you advertised, you could get a real business going," Laura suggested. "I have a couple of friends who teach music, and they never have to leave their apartments if they don't want to."

Rodney considered the idea. Those damn spinal headaches would make teaching difficult, but not impossible. Not feeling quite as panicked as he had these last few weeks whenever he thought about his future, he softly conceded, "That just might work."

"You know it will," she said. "My plans always work. No, don't you dare dredge up the exploding washing machine, that wasn't my fault."

Rodney gave a soft laugh, "Of course, it wasn't."

"It's worse when you humor me. Have you any idea how condescending you are?" she asked around a giggle.

Knowing that most people would have been shouting that line at him instead of laughing through it, he answered, "I'm sure you'll tell me."

"Actually, no. It would take way too much time. I think you should take a rest now. "

About to protest, his aching head reminded him of just how long he'd been sitting upright. "Okay."

"I know you can wheel yourself and take care of everything yourself, but let me help you this afternoon, all right? It's been a long day."

Touched by how conscious she was of the difficulties he was having accepting his physical limitations, he gave a nod and let her guide him to the bedroom.

The sight of the new bedspread and sheets reminded him that when he'd last left here, he'd thought John might be returning with him.

As Rodney hauled his useless legs up onto the bed, he wondered if he'd ever stop missing John.

*~*~*

The months following Teyla's interment were an unending nightmare of anger and depression for John. He thought he could have taken one of those losses, but to lose both his grandmother and Rodney in the space of the same week was more than he could handle.

For a while, he lost himself in booze. But eventually numbness lost its appeal and he took up his brush again and painted his way through the emotional morass that was strangling him. He'd never realized quite how therapeutic painting could be.

By September, he had more than thirty pieces ready for Henri. Not all of the pieces would go up for sale, John knew. They ranged in quality and style from modernist expressions of his fury and dejection to the piece he was proudest of, a portrait of Rodney looking up at an angelically glowing Teyla. They were both wearing his grandfather's shawl. John really felt that he'd captured what he'd loved most about both his lost dear ones in the piece.

He wasn't sure what had made him paint it. By rights, he shouldn't have ever wanted to see Rodney's face again, but . . . loving Rodney had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. Even though it had ended badly, there was a part of John that needed to acknowledge what he'd felt. That portrait seemed to have captured the purity of his love for them both. It was a fitting tribute, for, what it was worth, he hadn't broken faith with either of those people he loved. Rodney might have let him down horribly, but John had still felt that love for him and he'd felt the need to document it.

But he couldn't take money for the portrait. That would have truly made him a whore. So, he let Henri display it in his gallery, and tried his best to forget the pain.

Now, sitting across from Elizabeth in the living room section of his Tomkins Park loft in late November, John felt almost at peace with himself.

"I'm really proud of the work you've done, John," Elizabeth was saying as she sipped her tea, eying his latest, half-finished endeavor, a picture of a small girl picking a dandelion flower from where it was growing between the cracks in a city sidewalk. "This is really magnificent."

She was sitting on an easy chair across from where he was slouched on his couch. The diamond ring on her manicured hand resting on the worn upholstery of his secondhand chair looked out of place, but then, nothing as elegant as Elizabeth would really blend into his bohemian digs. The living area was as much a studio as a sitting room, his easels and drying canvases sharing space with his furniture.

"Thanks, I'm really pleased with this one," John admitted.

"I like it better than those abstracts you were doing in August," Elizabeth said. "Although, I can understand what drove you to paint them. I've redone the beach house three times since Simon left, and I still don't feel comfortable there. No matter how many times I redecorate the sun room, every time I walk into it, I still see him tangled there on the couch with that girl."

John supposed that being stood up was slightly better than catching your lover with a sixteen year old beach bunny.

It was ironic in a way, that they both would have found what they thought was true love at the same time, and lost it almost simultaneously. They'd both had a hard time of it this year, but she seemed to have handled things much better than him. Maybe it was because Rodney was the first person he'd ever allowed himself to really love or maybe he was just a bigger basket case than Elizabeth. All he knew was that three weeks after she'd thrown Simon out, she seemed her old self again, and months later he was still barely coping.

"That's the first time I've heard you say something like that, but it does explain why you've been in town so much lately," John said. Even right after Simon and she had broken up, Elizabeth had seemed more angry than hurt, not that he could blame her. "I have to admit, I've been envious of how well you handled what happened with Simon."

She shrugged and gave a slightly bitter laugh, "I guess I was just relieved that I didn't find out he was after my money." After a moment she asked the question he'd been dreading, "So, how are you doing? Really?"

He shrugged and took another gulp of his tea. "Okay, I guess. At least I've stopped breaking things."

"I wish there was something I could do to help," Elizabeth said.

He could see she meant the words. Not for the first time, he realized how lucky he was to have her in his life. Teyla's death and Rodney's rejection might have broken him, but between them, Henri and Elizabeth had nearly managed to put him back together.

Finding a real smile, he said, "You're still my friend. That's all the help I need."

He knew that even though there had been no real romantic love between them and she was interested in someone else, that most women would never have spoken to him again after he called off their engagement to live with another man. His admiration for her had only grown during the last few months.

"I'm glad to see you feeling better. I've been worried about you," Elizabeth said. "I think you need to get out more."

"Now, that's a leading line if ever I heard one. What did you have in mind?" John asked, knowing her too well.

Her smile was like sunlight. "Well, now that you ask, I'm supporting that new clinic for unwed mothers down on West Third Street. We're having a number of fund raising ballet and opera performances at the Met over the next few months and – "

"Would you do me the honor of allowing me to escort you?" John asked, before she had to ask him.

"You're a true gentleman – "

The phone rang beside him, interrupting them.

"Excuse me a moment," John said, picking up the receiver.

"John?" Henri's thickly French accented voice asked.

"Hello, Henri. It's almost done. I promise," John said to forestall the inevitable question. "Elizabeth will confirm it."

"I'm glad to hear that, but that's not why I'm calling," Henri said with a laugh.

"It isn't?" John asked.

"No. You know that not-for-sale portrait I'm displaying?" Henri asked.

"Yes," John said, his gut tightening a little as it did every time he thought of anything even faintly associated with Rodney.

"Well, I know you said you didn't want to sell it, but there's a young man here who, well, he seems bewitched by the painting. He asked the price last week, and I told him it wasn't for sale, but he's been here every day just looking at it. He asked me to see if the artist would consider selling it. I know customers, John, and this man is in love with the piece. Normally, I wouldn't have bothered you; he doesn't look like he could afford it even if it were for sale. He's in a wheelchair and . . . ." Henri's voice trailed off.

John thought of the masterpiece he could barely stand to look at. He knew he'd never bring it home. Just as he knew he couldn't accept money for this testament of his love. But it couldn't hang in Henri's shop forever. If someone saw the love he'd poured into that picture and would cherish it, didn't it make sense to give it a good home?

"Just give it to him, Henri," John said.

"You mean that? It's your finest work so far," Henri said. "If you'd just let me charge for it – "

"No, I can't take money for it. Just give it to him," John insisted, though it felt like he was giving a piece of his heart away.

"All right then. You're a good man, my friend," Henri said, his mystification clear in his voice.

"No, not really," John said. "But I'm working on it. I'll have that piece to you by the end of the week and we can have dinner together."

"I'll see you then. Goodbye."

"Bye, Henri," John said, hanging up.

He hoped that parting with the picture would be symbolic of parting with his pain. He was tired of hurting this way all the time.

"John?" Elizabeth's concerned voice called him back to the present.

Forcing a smile, he returned his attention to her.

*~*~*

Rodney stared at the smile on the face of the handsome man in the framed photograph, unable to believe that something that beautiful had once been his.

A rainbow of reflected Christmas lights blinked on the glass protecting the picture, but Rodney could still make out the details by the dim lights. It was a picture of them in Nice, taken that day they'd toured the park. He was wearing his floppy straw hat and a goofy smile in the photo. The grinning John looked sexy as hell in his black pants and blue button down. Rodney had to smile when he realized that the brim of his hat was poking John's temple. They were so close together in the picture that they looked like they were standing in each other's shoes. They both looked incredibly happy, like they belonged together.

Rodney couldn't help but wonder where John was now and what he was doing.

He knew John had followed through on his plans to paint, because he had that incredible piece of Teyla and himself that he'd seen in that Waverly Place gallery on his first solo outing last month. He still couldn't believe that John had told the shopkeeper to simply give it to him.

The portrait was utterly magnificent. Rodney was awed by John's talent. He was so proud that John had managed to break into the art world so quickly. The Waverly Gallery where Rodney had seen the piece in the window catered to Manhattan's upper class. There wasn't a single painting in the shop with a price tag under five hundred dollars. That John's work would be hanging there less than a year after he started painting proved that he was as good as Rodney had thought.

Rodney was still shocked that John had painted him. He'd thought that John would want nothing to do with him after the way he'd stood him up. John hadn't merely painted him. He'd . . . immortalized him, made him into something beautiful that would outlive him.

The painting confused Rodney. Both he and Teyla were wearing that grey shawl she'd had on the day he met her, and there was an almost ghostly or angelic quality to both their figures in the piece, like neither of them were totally corporeal or real. The absolute love John felt for them both shined off the painting. Rodney didn't know how John could paint something like that after what he'd done to him. But John had always been an amazing man.

The love in that painting gave him hope. He didn't think that he'd ever walk again at this point, but if he did regain the ability, maybe he could track John down.

Every time he looked at that painting, Rodney was tempted to try to contact John. The gallery owner obviously knew John's phone number, for he'd called to ask John to reconsider selling the piece while Rodney was in the shop. It would be so easy to just . . . but, no, he was so changed physically that the guy in the gallery hadn't even realized that he was one of the models in the painting. If he'd ever needed any proof that he wasn't the same man John had fallen in love with, that utter lack of recognition when he was sitting three feet from that perfect representation of his former self had been a bitter demonstration. And even if it hadn't been, he'd made up his mind months ago.

Contacting John would be selfish. John loved to travel; he was into all those active sports like skiing and surfing. Tying someone that vibrant and active to a cripple in a wheelchair would be criminal. As much as he missed him and would give anything to just see John one more time, he couldn't risk it. He knew he'd never have the control to resist John in the flesh. It had been so damn long since he'd seen him. It felt like forever.

With a shock, he realized that it had been nearly a year since they'd last seen each other. John was on his mind so constantly that it was hard to believe how long it had been since they'd actually been together. It ripped him apart every time he realized how unlikely it was that they'd ever meet again.

The sad truth was that John probably didn't think of him at all anymore. Jilted as he'd been, any man would do his best to forget the entire affair. But that painting . . . .

"You really should try to contact him." Laura's voice came from behind him. "You're not being at all fair to him."

Realizing that he'd been caught again, Rodney carefully placed the photo on the end table beside the couch where it had lived since the day he'd moved in and turned to look at her.

She was standing beside the Christmas tree she and Carson had put up in his living room the other day. Her long, red evening gown was very seasonal and her hair looked very golden against it.

"And it would be oh so fair to saddle him with a cripple," Rodney said, not really wanting to have this conversation again, but unable to avoid it.

"You need to let John make that decision," Laura insisted, as she had since July.

Sometimes he thought she was trying to wear him down with her persistence. She was the only person he knew who was nearly as stubborn as he was himself.

"I don't want his pity." Rodney could hear how weary his own voice sounded.

"John loves you."

"He loves the man I was, not this." Rodney gestured down at the wheelchair that had been his prison for the last six months. At least his left arm was out of the cast and mostly healed now, so he could wheel himself around, so he wasn't a total invalid.

"He loves you. You don't think Carson would stop loving me if I were in a wheelchair, do you?"

Rodney sighed. "Carson is crazy about you and you've been together for years. John didn't even know me two weeks. It's better this way."

"For who? Rodney, you're utterly miserable. If you'd just let me call John, he'd – "

"He'd what? Come help you lug my wheelchair up the front steps? I'm not doing that to him. Are we still going?" he changed the subject as he did every time she pushed him on this.

"Of course, we're still going. You look very handsome," she said.

"I haven't worn this tux since Monte Carlo," he said. That was the first night John and he had made love, he remembered. "It's almost too big on me."

"No, it looks fine," Laura assured.

He knew she'd say the same thing if he were wearing a potato sack, so he took little comfort in her words. But he did take comfort in her presence.

After the accident, she and Carson had moved from their fancy uptown apartment into this old tenement so that they'd be close to him. Rodney hadn't wanted them to, but he couldn't really stop them. Now, he didn't know what he'd do without them here. He was as self-sufficient as he could be, but there were still things he needed some assistance with. Laura and Carson were there without his ever having to ask.

"Well, let's go, then," Rodney said before he could chicken out. This was his first night out since the accident. Laura had called the Met's box office and arranged for them to arrive early so that people wouldn't be staring at him as he moved from the wheelchair to his aisle seat, but the whole outing still had him a nervous wreck. "Are you sure Carson can't get off?"

"Not if he wants to have Christmas Day off," Laura said. "Besides, you've been to the ballet with Carson. Do you really think I want to inflict that on myself?"

Carson could not be called a fan of the ballet by any stretch of the imagination. "I guess not."

"This is something you and I always do together," Laura said. "I think it will be fun. Come on, the car service called. They said they'll be out front in a few minutes."

To Rodney's surprise, getting uptown to the Metropolitan Opera House wasn't nearly the hassle he'd thought it would be. Laura's arrangements ran smooth as clockwork. They got there a half hour early, met the theatre attendant at the side entrance, left their coats at the cloakroom, and were escorted to their seats.

It seemed that Laura might be right. He loved this grand old theatre. Just being under the enormous glimmering chandelier made him fell better.

Rodney was proud of how quickly he was able to haul himself from the wheelchair to the seat these days. He tried to suppress the panic that flashed through him when he saw the stranger wheeling away his wheelchair. As much as he hated the idea of people staring at him; he hated the idea of burning to death in the event of a fire even more.

Laura seemed to read his mind for she said, "There hasn't been a fire in this theatre in all the time it's been standing."

"Then it's due, isn't it?" he countered.

"Your optimism is always so inspiring." She smiled and opened the program the attendant had given her.

Rodney was content to simply sit in the red velvet upholstered chair and reflect on his surroundings. It wasn't as ornate as the Salle Garnier in Casino Monte Carlo, but the Met was magnificent in its own right.

For once, the damn spinal headaches had let up. He might actually be able to enjoy the show.

A few minutes later, the doors behind them opened and the rest of the audience streamed in.

Rodney started as he briefly caught sight of a slender, dark-haired man who looked like John taking a seat in the first row, but Rodney was used to seeing John in crowds. Any time he was out in public, his imagination tormented him by turning every dark haired guy with an even faintly similar build into John Sheppard. Knowing how impossible his hopes were didn't stop his insides from clenching up every single time, though.

"The idea of this venture is to have a good time," Laura whispered into his ear.

"I am," he guiltily insisted. He knew how excited Laura was that they were finally able to do this together again. He wasn't going to do anything to dim her enjoyment of the night, even if he was beginning to think this entire idea might have been a mistake. The phantom John in the crowd had depressed him, not that that was all that hard to do these days.

"I might believe you if you'd stop gritting your teeth," she said.

"I'm not – "

"Are, too," she insisted like a bratty kid sister.

"I am not going to have this immature argument," Rodney said with as much dignity as he could muster.

"Great. I win, then," she grinned at him.

"That makes no sense – " he began to protest.

She cut him off with a, "Sssh, the show is starting," as the lights overhead flickered their warning.

A stream of people climbed over them into their seats further in the row and Rodney was temporarily distracted from the argument.

The Nutcracker was probably his favorite ballet. No matter how many times he saw it performed, it still hypnotized him. Rodney was lost in the performance within seconds. For two fleeting hours, he forgot all about his paralyzed legs, his aching heart, all his losses, his students, the unending headaches, and existed solely in conjunction with the movement on stage.

All too soon, the dancers were taking their second bow. Most of the theatre was on its feet giving the group a standing ovation. He and Laura remained seated as the people in their row turned to leave on the far aisle.

The ballet goers with the choice seats up front were beginning to pass by Rodney's mid-theatre seat. He wished they'd move faster so that the theatre could clear out and the attendant could bring him his chair. Now that he was no longer enraptured with the show, his concerns about fire and other natural disasters were beginning to reassert themselves.

His imagination was treating him to a scenario of the long red curtains up front engulfed in flames while he vainly attempted to drag his crippled body to the distant exit when his abstracted gaze came to rest on a strangely familiar face.

It was only as those hazel eyes hardened until they looked like cold green stone that Rodney recognized John. He was wearing that same sleek and sexy tux he'd worn the day they'd toured Monte Carlo. He looked . . . way beyond attractive. Well, except for the ice in his eyes. Rodney had never seen such coldness in John, and it shook him to have it directed at him, even if he fully understood the reason.

It felt like his world fell out from under him. Rodney was so shocked to see John that the playbill fell from his limp hand.

It landed right on the red carpet between John's black leather shoes and a pair of high heels that Rodney saw belonged to Elizabeth Weir when he looked up from her shoes.

She was staring at John in open confusion.

John was standing there staring at him like he'd been turned to stone.

Laura, too, seemed shocked beyond words, because for once she wasn't flinging herself into impulsive actions.

Realizing that someone had to say something soon, before this scene became any more awkward and unbearable than it already was, Rodney stammered, "H-hello."

"Hello," John answered, his voice so tight that Rodney could barely recognize it. Then John bent to retrieve his fallen playbill, handed it to him, took hold of Elizabeth Weir's elbow, and walked away like they were complete strangers.

Rodney didn't know what he'd expected, but the sight of John's stiff spine retreating with the crowd hurt worse than waking up in traction had. He felt like he'd lost everything dear to him all over again.

"Rodney, please, let me go talk to him?" Laura begged beside him.

"No," he said, shaking his head. Even though he felt like he was dying inside, he knew it was better this way.

"You saw his face. He's hurting as bad as you. Please let me just explain – "

"No!" Realizing that if he lost control of his emotions now, he'd end up a humiliating wreck, Rodney forced himself to remain calm. "It's better this way. He's back with Elizabeth. Let's just . . . go home. Get my chair? Please?"

To his horror, there were tears streaming down Laura's face. Her eye makeup was completely ruined and she looked like a raccoon. She gave a stiff nod, rose to her feet, tripped on her long red gown as she climbed over him, and finally headed down the now empty aisle towards the lobby.

Realizing that he was completely alone in the auditorium now, Rodney squeezed his eyes shut to hold back the stinging heat, crossed his arms across his chest to hug himself tight, and tried not to shake. Control . . . he had to stay in control.

But the only thing he could see behind his closed eyelids was John's icy expression.

*~*~*

By the time he reached the street, John was shaking all over. He barely saw the brightly lit, twenty-foot Christmas tree that was standing in the winter-empty fountain out in front of the opera house. For that matter, he barely saw Elizabeth beside him. He made it to her limo on blind instinct.

"Who was that?" Elizabeth questioned, her face strained with worry.

"No one," John said. "Just a ghost from the past."

"That was your Rodney, wasn't it?" Elizabeth guessed as her chauffer hurried to open the car door for them. She'd only seen him once. There was no reason she'd remember what Rodney looked like.

"He's not my Rodney. He never was," John tried to control his pain, but the words emerged as a snarl. "Sorry."

He couldn't take the sympathy in her eyes as she said, "It's okay. Let's –"

"No, thanks. I think I need some air. I'll walk home," he said, though he wasn't sure if his rubbery legs would support him that far. Seeing Rodney like that had hit him like a kick to the balls.

"Walk? John, it's nearly four miles and it's freezing," Elizabeth argued.

He looked around the busy street. The fur-draped women and tuxedo clad men hurrying to waiting cabs and limos were nearly as glittery as the Christmas lights on the tree behind them.

Elizabeth was right. The night was fiercely cold. Only, bitter as it was, he couldn't stand the thought of being with anyone right now. He needed to lick his wounds in privacy.

"I'll be all right," he said and hurried down the street before she could stop him.

He could hear her calling his name as he crossed 62nd Street. Instinct guided him to Broadway, and he began the long walk downtown.

Once he cleared the immediate area of the opera house, the streets were virtually empty. This late on Christmas Eve, even the most inveterate shoppers were home. It was just him and the night, as it had been for the last year.

The wind tore at his face as he quickened his stride. It was fierce and painful, but he welcomed it, for it offered an excuse for whatever might be showing on his face.

Damn, he couldn't believe how upset he was. He'd thought he was over the worst of this, thought he was healing, but one look at Rodney McKay brought all those old feelings back.

It wasn't fair. He'd been doing so fucking well.

He was infuriated to realize as he walked that his pitiful heart was replaying that brief meeting with Rodney over and over again. He'd missed him so much this last year that just the sight of Rodney had filled his whole being. The degree of masochism involved was staggering.

What the hell kind of pathetic loser was he, that he'd cling to such a painful meeting that obviously meant nothing to Rodney? The agonizing, brief encounter had laid to rest every hopeless excuse that he'd ever told himself for Rodney not showing up. Rodney had offered no explanation for his failure to keep their appointment, made no excuses, hell, the bastard hadn't even apologized. All the son of a bitch had done was sit there and gape at him.

And he was such a besotted moron that the meeting had ripped his equanimity apart. His hard-won healing was revealed as the farce it was, and he was back at stage one with his heart raw and bleeding.

Walking downtown on Broadway, it was inevitable that his path would bring him to the place where all this hurting had started. Telling himself that it was just the wind making his eyes sting, John stared up at the brilliantly lit Empire State Building. Those white lights were so bright against the night sky that they hurt his eyes.

Even now, after all this time, there was a part of him that simply couldn't believe that Rodney had stood him up.

An unexpected rage filled him when he thought about how Rodney had just sat there staring at him as if deserting him hadn't rated either an apology or an explanation. He'd been hurting for so long that it felt good to get mad. He was furious with Rodney for letting him down like that, for dashing his newly formed hopes and dreams the way he had.

But he was mad at himself, too. He'd been so overwhelmed by the shock of seeing Rodney like that, that all he'd managed was a totally dumb 'hello', when what he really should have done was tell the bastard what he thought of him. But he'd passed up that opportunity and now it would never come again. He didn't even know where Rodney was living these days. Although, if his no show at the Empire State Building last July were any indication of Rodney's character, he was probably still living with that Trent guy.

Just the idea of that drove him crazy. That he would have worked his ass off to change his life around while Rodney rolled over for that worthless jerk and did nothing to fulfill his part of their bargain . . . .

Forcing his gaze away from the glimmering tower, his eyes settled on a phone booth on the corner. Its interior lights were lit and he could clearly see the telephone directory hanging down in there.

On impulse, he entered the booth. If nothing else, it temporarily shielded him from the wind. His cold-reddened hand pulled up the phone directory. His fingers were nearly numb, so it took a couple of tries to get the oversized book opened to the correct section. Running his finger down the Mc entries, he stopped at R. McKay, 682 W. 12th Street.

God, if that were Rodney, they'd been living less than a mile from each other for the last year.

John memorized the address. If nothing else, he could mail Rodney Teyla's shawl.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped out into the driving winds again and began the long, lonely trek home.

*~*~*

Predictably enough, Rodney had gotten no sleep after the ballet. He'd spent the entire night tossing and turning, thinking about John and the hardness in his eyes.

Now, on Christmas Day, he sat on his living room couch. His head was killing him and he'd had three of those agonizing muscle spasms so far this morning, but at the moment, he wasn't feeling too horrible physically. Emotionally, he was a wreck.

The Christmas tree was lit, brightening the room with its fragrant presence, but no amount of seasonal cheer was going to lift his aching heart.

He'd done his best to be decent company when Laura and Carson had come down to open presents. Carson was back at the Becketts' apartment now, changing for dinner at Laura's sister's in Brooklyn. Laura was still in Rodney's kitchen, fussing with the meals she insisted on preparing for him. The way he felt right now, hypoglycemic or not, he might never eat again. But he wasn't going to make her feel bad, not when she was trying so terribly hard to help him through these difficult days.

"I really wish you'd change your mind and come with us," Laura said for about the hundredth time this morning. "You know Joan would love to see you."

His patience not as good as he'd hoped, he snapped, "Joan lives in a fourth floor walkup."

"I know, but – "

"I'll be fine," Rodney insisted. "You've already prepared three meals and probably six snacks – "

"Seven," Laura said with a smile that didn't quite touch her worried eyes. "I noticed that you barely touched your pancakes this morning."

"I'll be fine, really."

"I just hate leaving you here alone on Christmas. We can call and cancel. Carson would love to get out of going to my sister's."

"You'll do no such thing," Rodney said. "Look, I barely slept last night. I'm tired. I'm just going to read for a while, take a nap, and then eat all that food you made. Just get my chair out of the bedroom before you go and I'll be fine."

Her resigned sigh echoed through the strangely quiet room.

Surprised, he realized that the stack of Christmas albums that had been playing on his record player for the last two hours had finally run out. He supposed he should be thankful that she hadn't noticed. If he heard one more Deck the Halls or Joy to the World, he was going to be sick.

Seeing that she was still unconvinced, he reminded, "I'm here by myself most of the day, every day. I'll be all right."

"But it's Christmas," Laura argued.

"And I'm an atheist," he countered. Although, even a non-believer like himself could find himself a little blue on this day when most people were celebrating with their families. He reminded himself that he'd already had his celebration with his family, and now it was time to allow them to go fulfill their other obligations while he sat here mentally reliving the only ten days he'd ever been truly happy.

"Rodney – "

"Just get my chair and – " his words broke off as a knock sounded on the door.

Laura and he exchanged a look. Aside from his students, Rodney didn't get many visitors. He supposed one of his students could be stopping by to drop off a present. Several had done so already. But it was weird that they'd be visiting on a holiday without calling.

"Maybe Carson forgot his key?" Rodney suggested.

"Even if he did, I left it unlocked. I'll go see who it is," Laura said, hurrying to the front door on the other side of the room.

She opened the door, and Rodney's heart thudded to a stop when he saw John Sheppard standing there in a heavy black coat with a flat, brown paper-wrapped bundle under his right arm. John's cheeks were flushed from the cold, his hair going in about a dozen more directions than normal from the wind. As he stepped into the living room, John slipped off his coat and held it folded over his arm.

For all that he thought he mightn't survive the shock of unexpectedly seeing John twice in twenty-four hours like this, his eyes and hungry heart drank in the sight of the man. If anything, John was more incredible than he remembered.

"Hello, Laura. Is Rodney here?" John asked, his gaze straying past her red sweater-covered shoulder to look into the room. "Ah, there he is. May I . . . ?"

Laura seemed to shake herself out of her shocked stasis. She broke into a wide smile that totally belied the awkward circumstances. "John! Come in. Please. It's so good to see you! Here, let me take your coat."

John appeared understandably taken aback by her cheer as she took his coat and hung it on the nearby coat rack.

Rodney's mouth ran dry and his heart started to pound madly when he realized how easily Laura could let John know things that he'd worked very hard to keep him from finding out. Thank God his wheelchair was in the other room. He'd never thought he would ever be grateful for how tiny his apartment was.

As John entered the living room, Laura paused inside the door, looking as if she were unsure whether she should leave. "Should I go get your – "

"No!" Rodney cut her off. "I'm fine. Go to your sister's and have a good time."

"But you're – "

"Laura, please . . . just go?" Rodney all but begged. The last thing he wanted was John's pity. He thought that might even be worse than that new hardness in John's eyes.

"I'll call you before we leave for Joan's," Laura said, looking unhappy about it. They both knew he was virtually trapped on the couch without his wheelchair.

"Thank you," Rodney said, meaning it.

She looked like she might start crying again, but she did as he'd requested and left.

Once the door closed behind her, Rodney turned his full attention on his visitor.

John was taking in the tiny apartment with its secondhand furniture. When his gaze had touched upon everything there was to see in the unprepossessing place, John focused on him and said, "Not quite the Fifth Avenue penthouse."

Rodney couldn't tell if John were mocking him or not. His eyes were so distant. He'd never seen him this barricaded. He watched as John moved further into the room. The grey pants and black sweater he wore looked almost as sleek as John's tux.

"No." Forcing his frozen vocal chords to work, Rodney decided to take the words at face value and agreed, "The altitude didn't agree with me."

"Nice tree," John acknowledged.

"Thanks." Feeling very stupid, Rodney offered a nervous, "Um, Merry Christmas."

John didn't justify the foolish sentiment with a reply. He simply nodded.

Not knowing what he should say, Rodney stumbled with, "It's good to see you."

Those changeable eyes narrowed. "Is it?"

Unable to lie about something like that, Rodney gave a slow nod. "Yes, it is. I've wondered how you were."

"Did you?"

Cold sarcasm was more his style than John's. Rodney winced at having it used on him and gave a helpless nod.

"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here?" John said when the silence felt so tight that Rodney thought it would choke them both.

Rodney gave another nod, tensing as John moved closer. He felt very vulnerable trapped on the couch as he was.

"I was looking for the number of a man named 'McRae' when I came across R. McKay in the phonebook and I thought to myself, this can't be my old friend Rodney McKay, can it? You see, I owed Rodney an apology," John said in a strangely cheerful voice.

Having no clue what John was talking about, he asked, "You did?"

"Yes. Rodney and I had an appointment last summer, which I missed. It seemed only right that I look him up. Don't you think people should apologize when they fail to keep an appointment?" John demanded, his eyes and voice like steel.

Rodney gave a numb nod. John hadn't been there in July?

Because it had never occurred to him that John wouldn't keep his word, Rodney found himself asking in a small voice, "You didn't make it in July?"

"No, but, then you'd know that, wouldn't you?" John questioned.

Hoping that the stinging in his eyes wouldn't spill over, Rodney gave another mute nod, because, well, he hadn't made it to the top of the Empire State Building as planned, but he'd done his absolute damnedest to get there . . . to meet someone who had never shown up. It was a good thing he hadn't eaten those pancakes this morning. His stomach was twisted in such a tight knot that he was sure he was going to throw up any minute.

"Were you very angry?" John asked.

"W-what?" Rodney stammered, still reeling under the knowledge that he'd lost the ability to walk while racing to meet someone who hadn't been there. He'd never felt so hollow or empty inside. It was like the last bit of life left him, leaving nothing but this crippled shell.

"Well, you must have felt something when I stood you up. Were you angry?" John pressed.

Why was John doing this? Why was he being so . . . cruel? What kind of sick thrill could John be getting by pointing out how devastated he'd been . . . was?

Horrified, Rodney felt his lungs start to tighten up. No, he was absolutely not going to have an asthma attack on top of everything else, not with John standing there with that weird look in his hard eyes. Somehow, he had to stay calm.

"Well, were you?" John pressed.

Rodney gave another mute nod. He was too hurt to be angry. His mind was still trying to absorb the realization that he had lost the ability to walk while rushing to meet someone who wasn't there.

How could John not have been there?

"How long did you wait?" John asked.

That question changed everything. Previously, all Rodney had had to do was nod and allow John to make assumptions, but he couldn't lie about something that important. Torn, Rodney searched for a response and did his best to take deep breaths and stay as calm as he could.

*~*~*

This wasn't nearly as satisfying as he'd thought it would be, John acknowledged as he stood there waiting for Rodney to answer his question about how long he'd waited on July first.

John had been in these kinds of awkward situations more times than he cared to remember. Only, Rodney wasn't reacting the way most of the other lovers who'd disappointed him had. Both last night and now, once the initial shock of seeing him had faded some, Rodney's eyes seemed to devour him, as if he'd ached for him as much as John had missed him. Rodney seemed genuinely pleased to see him, which made absolutely no sense to John. In the past, whenever he'd encountered an ex-lover after a bad breakup, both he and the other person couldn't get away from each other fast enough. But Rodney was meeting his eyes and watching him as though he were memorizing everything about him.

John had decided in the early hours of the morning that he would save face by telling Rodney that he hadn't been there, either. He figured that way, they'd be on even ground. He could drop off Teyla's shawl, let Rodney know he hadn't been a besmitten dupe, and get on with his life.

Only, Rodney's response to that ploy was totally bewildering. He'd looked . . . crushed by the idea that he hadn't kept their appointment. It made no sense. Rodney was the bastard who'd failed to keep faith. Why would he even care if John hadn't shown up at this point? It wasn't like Rodney had been kept waiting all night for a no show lover. But even now, Rodney looked seconds away from a breakdown of some sort. Instead of salving his pride, his ruse was beginning to make John feel like he was kicking a puppy. Rodney looked that defenseless.

It was more than just that. Something about Rodney was off, John thought. Rodney was sitting there on the couch bundled in a huge brown sweater, with a heavy blanket wrapped around his lower body, even though the room felt pleasantly warm.

Rodney was always pale. But last night he'd looked white as a sheet, and today he was an ashen color with dark circles beneath his eyes. He almost looked unwell. But more than that, there was an eerie stillness to Rodney. The man he remembered was always a spirit in motion. When Rodney spoke, his hands moved as eloquently as his tongue, and when Rodney was nervous, he had a tendency to pace and talk, hands waving dramatically while he emoted.

A situation this fraught with emotion should have had Rodney on his feet, bouncing off the walls. It was weird to see him just sitting there so still on the couch. He'd been still like that at the ballet last night, too, John remembered, not sure what it meant. The only time he could recall Rodney being that motionless last year was when he was deeply asleep.

Deciding to take another approach when it seemed that Rodney wouldn't tell him an outright lie, John said, "Maybe you gave me every benefit of the doubt and waited a long time?"

Rodney gave what seemed a grateful nod at the suggestion. He was still an awful liar, though. His face gave his uneasiness away.

"Maybe you waited until all the crowds had left and you were the only one up there? Maybe you stood there thinking that I wouldn't stand you up like that, not after all we'd been to each other. Maybe you waited until after midnight and only left when the thunderstorm rolled in and the lightning crashing around the Observation Deck made it too dangerous to wait any longer?"

"A thunderstorm . . . ." Rodney sounded utterly miserable. His face was still so damn open. His horror was clearly visible in his features, as was the fact that it was obvious that he understood that John was talking about himself now and no longer fabricating.

"Maybe you did all that because you simply couldn't believe that I would let you down?" John said, allowing all his pain and anger to show.

He heard Rodney's gulp from across the room. Granted, it was a very small room.

After a long pause, Rodney suggested in a strangled tone, "Maybe you had a very good reason for missing our appointment."

John considered the idea. "Then perhaps I should explain it to you?"

More than torn, Rodney seemed tortured. After another hesitation, he said, "We agreed that there would be no questions or recriminations if one of us couldn't make it."

Rodney wasn't going to tell him? The bastard had broken his heart, and it didn't even rate an explanation?

Okay, that was it. John didn't know what was going on here, but he wasn't playing any more of these fucking head games.

"You know, when I saw you last night, I knew that there still had to be something there between us." The hope that flashed through Rodney's expression made John almost crazy with fury. What the hell kind of game was this guy playing? Just wanting to get out of this weird scene, he finished with an honest, "Even if it were only an ocean. So, I made reservations to sail back to France."

"You're leaving New York?" Rodney sounded utterly stricken.

"Yes. I sail first thing in the morning."

Rodney's face seemed to crumble for a second before he got himself back under control with a visible effort. When he spoke, his voice was low and sad, but just as sincere as John remembered. "I . . . it was good to see you again. Thank you for coming. I . . . hope you'll be happy."

"I actually had a reason for coming here," John said, holding out the package under his arm. "This is for you."

Rodney was understandably surprised. "I, ah, don't have a Christmas present for you. I . . . didn't expect to see you today."

And wasn't that the truth, John sadly acknowledged. "It's not a Christmas present."

John waited for Rodney to get up and accept the package, but Rodney just continued to sit there under his heavy blue blanket.

When it became clear that Rodney wasn't going to come to him, John approached the couch as hesitantly as he would an uncaged, man-eating tiger. It hurt to be so close to Rodney again, to hear that voice he remembered so well and look into those crystal blue eyes. John's entire being ached with loss and regret. This was the person he'd wanted to spend the rest of his life with, and now he couldn't bear to be within three feet of the man.

When he was close enough, John held out the package.

Rodney still stayed seated. Their hands were just six inches short of meeting each other, but Rodney never even tried to raise himself from the couch to go the extra distance.

Well, it wasn't like Rodney had gone any extra distance for him since they'd parted, John acknowledged, wondering why he'd thought this would be any different. Stifling his irritation, he moved closer and handed the package over, making sure that there was absolutely no contact between their hands as he did so.

Not wanting Rodney to read how upsetting this was to him, John averted his eyes.

His gaze fell upon the coffee table between them. There was an open book on it, what looked like a bunch of new clothing still in their wrappers that were probably Christmas gifts, a glass of water, a full coffee mug, and several prescription drug bottles. Seeing the pill bottles and taking in how bundled up the other man was, John realized that Rodney probably was sick.

Great, on top of everything else, he was probably going to catch the flu now.

Unable to keep his eyes off Rodney, for all that he wished it didn't matter to him, John looked back up.

Once the package was in his hand, Rodney sat back against the green couch and slowly opened it.

John watched Rodney's face carefully as he undid the brown paper. When the intricately woven, grey wool shawl came into the light, Rodney winced. Appearing unbearably sad, Rodney softly whispered, "So that's why all my letters were returned."

Rodney was still writing to his grandmother? Even after standing him up?

Those pained blue eyes met his and Rodney said with what appeared to be utter sincerity, "I'm really sorry, John. I know how much she meant to you."

It was too much. Gulping, he looked away again, hating that this could still hurt him so much.

His throat feeling tight and painful, John croaked out a low, "She wanted you to have it."

Rodney nodded. His beautiful squarish hand that John could remember bringing him such pleasure softly stroked the shawl the way it had once stroked his body.

"Thank you," Rodney softly acknowledged. After a moment, he asked, "How have you been?"

That was too much. Not even trying to hold back his bitterness, John sneered, "How do you think? She died the first week in July."

Rodney squeezed his eyes closed, his hands digging deep into the shawl.

Aware that he couldn't take much more of this, John said, "Well, as charming as this has been, I'm afraid I must be on my way now."

"Thank you for this," Rodney said, holding up the shawl. "I'll treasure it always."

Knowing that he wouldn't be able to hold it together much longer, John made a beeline for the door. But the sight of Rodney holding his grandmother's favorite wrap slowed him down. It reminded him of that picture he'd painted.

Wanting Rodney to know that he hadn't failed at everything in life, John softly said, "I painted you wearing that shawl. My agent found a good home for it. There was a young man who fell in love with the portrait. He saw in it what I'd hoped you'd see. I couldn't take money for the piece, and, well, the guy who liked it couldn't afford my prices anyway." To his confusion, there was nothing like surprise on Rodney's face. In fact, he looked like nothing he'd said was news to him. Feeling like he was missing an enormous piece of a puzzle he was working on, John continued with, "So I told Henri to just give it to him. You see, he was in a wheelchair and – "

John's words broke off as an inconceivable notion crossed his mind.

Rodney's face wasn't unsurprised anymore. He looked scared.

His heart racing as his stomach lurched, John tried to shake the ridiculous idea. This was nearly as pathetic as the thought that Rodney didn't make their assignation because he was dead had been, only . . . .

Rodney still hadn't gotten up off that couch. That fact, when added to the pill bottles and the unnatural stillness . . . .

There were two doors opening into the living room across from them. The nearest one was open and John could see a tub in it.

He moved quickly to the other door; the one that was closed.

Rodney gave a panicked sounding, "John, don't! Please – " as John opened what proved to be the bedroom door. There was a bed right in front of him, and on the wall directly across from it, the portrait he'd painted of Teyla and Rodney was hanging. He was still frozen in shock with the sight of his painting hanging here in Rodney's bedroom when his gaze fell upon the folded wheelchair beside the bed.

Oh, God, no . . . .

His legs turned to rubber as understanding hit. His eyes squeezing shut, John sank back against the doorjamb, willing what he was seeing to be gone. But when he reopened his eyes, both the portrait and wheelchair were still there. Recalling Rodney's unnatural stillness, all those pill bottles, and the way Laura had been frantically hovering before she left, everything suddenly made perfect, agonizing sense.

Rodney hadn't abandoned him. The man he'd been hating and cursing these last six months had been stricken ill or injured.

There was no holding it together once he realized how incredibly wrong he'd been about Rodney. The new him had been right all along in believing that Rodney would have been there at the Empire State Building unless something dire had happened to him.

As he turned back to the living room and saw Rodney's horrified, scared face, John started shaking. He was across the room before he even consciously considered moving.

Rodney was looking up at him with an expression that seemed to suggest that he was wishing he could fall through a crack in the floor and just disappear. He looked mortified, or maybe even terrified, like his worst nightmare had just been realized.

The open fear stopped him cold. Trembling all over with his need to touch Rodney, John held back and croaked out, "Why . . . why didn't you tell me? I would've come. I would have . . . ."

Rodney's complexion had gone even greyer. He looked like he might actually pass out as he said in a strained voice, "I couldn't inflict this upon you."

"Inflict?! I thought you'd stood me up. I thought you didn't care – "

Now it was guilt on Rodney's face. "No. I was on my way to meet you . . . I was so close. I was looking up, not watching where I was going. I didn't see the car jump the light and . . . ."

Abruptly, John recalled the commotion and ambulance he'd seen way below when he was waiting for Rodney up on the Observation Deck. Dear God, that had been Rodney down there!

Why hadn't he realized that something horrible had to have happened for Rodney not to have been there? If he'd only checked, he could have been there for Rodney. Instead, he'd assumed the worst about his lover and Rodney had faced all this alone, not wanting to inflict his condition upon him.

He'd known Rodney was noble from the start, but this . . . this was beyond his ken.

Unable to hold himself back any longer, John launched himself at Rodney. Kneeling on the couch beside him, he gathered Rodney into his arms. Rodney's legs might be out of commission, but his arms still worked fine. They hugged him almost painfully tight.

John was shaking, and he was pretty sure his face was wet as he buried it in Rodney's shoulder and inhaled his scent, but Rodney didn't seem to mind. He seemed to be trembling just as badly.

They clung to each other for what felt like forever.

When John thought he'd gotten his emotions back under control, he lifted his face from where it was buried in Rodney's shoulder. He was aching to kiss him, but Rodney's worried expression was cautioning him to move slowly.

Hell, he didn't even know how extensive Rodney's injuries were. Rodney had said something about not seeing a car; so apparently, he'd been struck by a car on the way to meet him. For all John knew, that hug could have physically hurt him.

Not wanting to lose contact, John kept his hands on Rodney's arms as he sat back on the couch as close as he could get without one of them moving onto the other's lap.

Rodney was still watching him with a worried expression. John had really hoped that that hug would make things easier, but even though it had confirmed that they still had strong feelings for each other, it was clear that Rodney was still concerned and hesitant . . . maybe even in pain.

"I'm sorry," John softly apologized, appalled by how his own fear of rejection had kept him from seeking Rodney out when he'd known something bad had to have happened to keep him from their appointment.

"What for?" Rodney seemed genuinely confused. For all that he was obviously nervous as hell, those blue eyes were feasting on his face.

"For not having the balls to look for you when you missed our meeting," John said.

"I didn't want you to find me. I didn't want you to know," Rodney said. After a gulped in breath, he added, "I'm still not sure how I feel about your finding out."

"Huh?" John was totally thrown. Rodney didn't want him here?

"I'm not . . . I'm not the same man you knew. This has . . . changed me," Rodney said, seeming more lost than John had ever seen him.

About to deny the statement, John shut his mouth. He really had no idea what he was talking about or what Rodney had been dealing with these last six months. What he needed was more information. Hoping he wasn't going to upset Rodney, he quietly questioned, "How bad is it?"

Rodney bit his lower lip for a long moment before replying. "I was thrown fifteen feet in the accident and slammed up against a street light. One of my vertebrae was cracked and my left arm broken. I had a huge concussion and they had to drain fluid from my skull. It was really a miracle that more bones weren't broken, but . . . the outcome is I'm pretty much paralyzed from the hips down. The vertebra is healed now, but there was severe nerve damage. I . . . well, it's possible that I'll never walk again."

It was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. Rodney was alive and conscious. Everything else . . . they could deal with it.

Taking a deep breath, John held those troubled eyes. He could see how the loss of his legs was a constant ordeal to Rodney, but . . . he still didn't understand why Rodney didn't want him to know. Thinking that he needed the whole picture, he asked, "Are you in a lot of pain?"

His grandfather's slow death had shown him how pain could change a person's personality and mess with their mental processes. He had a feeling that Rodney had probably been in panic mode for months now at the thought of never walking again. If he were in pain as well, he probably wasn't seeing anything very clearly at the moment.

Rodney's face darkened. "Some. It's better now than it was, but I still get the spinal headaches nearly every day. They sort of feel like your head is being banged against a stone wall every time you sit up straight. And I also get these really painful muscle spasms."

That certainly seemed to answer the not-thinking-clearly question.

"You've had a really rough time of it," John said. "I wish I could have been there to help you through it, but . . . I'm here now. I'll just have to make up for all the lost time."

Rodney's eyes widened in shock as he protested, "John . . . I mightn't ever get any better. This might be all there is . . . forever."

"You already said that," John pointed out, sliding closer and laying his right arm across Rodney's shoulders.

"I won't do this to you," Rodney said, trying to slide away from him.

The fact that Rodney couldn't move without using his hands on the couch cushion to push his lower body along drove home to John just how much had changed.

Although he didn't want to let him go, John wasn't about to force Rodney to sit close to him, not when he couldn't get away if he wanted to. So, he removed his arm from Rodney and backed off.

"Do what to me?" John asked.

"Chain you to a cripple. I'm not – "

"You're not thinking clearly. You've been scared for months. You're in pain all the time. You're not chaining me to anything. I'm here because that's where I want to be . . . because I love you," John spelled it out so that there could be no further confusion on that matter.

His declaration seemed to throw Rodney. After a very loud gulp, he protested, "You love the guy I was. You don't know this me."

"You're Rodney McKay. That's the man I want to spend the rest of my life with . . . if he'll have me?" John allowed some of his own insecurity to show. He thought Rodney was being noble here, but there really was the possibility that Rodney simply didn't want to be bothered with him now that he had so many problems of his own to deal with. Just because he needed Rodney in his life didn't necessarily mean that Rodney needed or wanted him.

The thick fan of Rodney's incredibly long lashes swept down to veil his gaze as he softly said, "It isn't a question of my having you. It's a question of my being fair to you. When we planned to meet last summer, we both agreed that we had to be self-sufficient. I'm a little better than I was in the summer. I go out on my own now and sometimes even wheel myself down to the university. But I can't even get up those three little stairs out front without Laura's help. I am as far from self-sufficient as it's possible to get and still be breathing on my own."

"So, we'll move to a place with no stairs," John said, trying to stay calm, in spite of his growing fear. Rodney was one of the most determined, willful men he'd ever met. If Rodney truly decided that it was in John's best interest for them not to be together, the man was stubborn enough to follow through, no matter what John himself might feel.

"The stairs aren't the issue. I'm the issue," Rodney insisted. "I'm broken and I might never be fixed. I'm not going to ruin your life by – "

"By letting me be with the person who loves me?" John interrupted, knowing that he was fighting for both their lives here. "Or are you trying to tell me that this changed Rodney McKay doesn't love me? Because that's what it's going to take to get rid of me. You're going to have to say you don't love me and convince me that's it's true before I'll give up on you."

Rodney looked like he was going to give the words a try, but after a moment he squeezed his eyes shut and said, "You know I'd be lying if I said it."

Almost weak with relief, John took a deep breath. Okay, Rodney still loved him. Rodney was scared and guilt-ridden and, who knew what else, but none of that was insurmountable, not if he still loved him.

Thinking up a new approach, John asked, "Can I ask you a question?"

Rodney gave a guarded nod.

"What if our positions were reversed? What if you'd been the one who waited, and thought I hadn't come, and then you find out six months later that I'd been hurt trying to get to you that day? Would you stop loving me or stop wanting to be with me because I wasn't able to walk?"

"That isn't what happened," Rodney evaded the question.

"I'm asking you the question anyway. I really need to know the answer. My whole life, people have wanted to sleep with me because they think I'm good looking. You were the one person who convinced me that you wanted me for more than my looks. Was I wrong there? If I were in an accident tomorrow and my face got scarred, would you turn your back on me and walk away?"

Rodney's mouth twisted down in a crooked grimace. After a long pause, he gave a defeated sounding, "Ignoring the fact that I wouldn't be able to walk away . . . the answer is no. I . . . you know I would never leave you over something like that."

After nearly a year's separation, John really didn't know that. He'd hoped it was true, but he'd had to question his instincts so much these last six months that he wasn't sure of anything anymore. But he didn't say that. Instead, he challenged, "Then why can't you accept that I feel the same way? If you wouldn't leave me over some superficial thing – "

"This isn't superficial," Rodney protested.

"It is when you're using it as grounds to keep us apart," John argued.

He'd hoped that his words would be reassuring, but Rodney appeared even more worried.

"You don't know what you're taking on here. I – I can't do most of the things we used to do."

"Then we'll concentrate on the things you can do," John said.

Rodney's paleness was a sharp contrast to the embarrassed flush that touched his cheeks. "I don't even know if I . . . I mean, I haven't. I'm in pain most of the time. I . . . don't feel very sexy."

That throat problem he used to experience around Rodney last year was back again, with a vengeance. Of course Rodney wasn't feeling very sexy. Who would with the physical problems he was experiencing? Forcing his words past that lump in his throat, John said, "I just want to be with you. I don't care what we do."

"That isn't fair to you. You're . . . ."

Deciding that it was time for Rodney to understand that he wasn't being self-sacrificing here, John interrupted with, "You're making it sound like I'm making some kind of noble sacrifice by being with you. I'm not. This is strictly selfish on my part. I . . . I need you, Rodney. I'm just as broken as you are. I haven't dated since the last time we were together . . . I haven't wanted to. My scars from July aren't visible, but if they were, I'd look like Quasimodo. I'm willing to take whatever you can give me. If that's just handholding on the couch, then that's what it is, and I'll be happy with it."

"You're not making this easy," Rodney complained.

"If by 'this' you mean sending me away, then I intend to make it impossible," John said, wishing he could erase the worry and fear from Rodney's eyes. He remembered how they used to almost glow when they were together. More than anything, he wanted to see that happy light.

"Don't I get a say in this?" Rodney demanded, sounding cranky and defensive.

"You said you still loved me," John reminded. If he'd needed any proof of that fact, John realized that he had really only needed to look around the room. He'd been so upset at being so close to Rodney again that he hadn't been paying much attention to the details of the cramped living room when he'd entered, but now he could see that there was a framed photo of Rodney and him in Nice's Arènes et jardins de Cimiez park under the lamp on the end table behind Rodney and there was another of the two of them taken in Cannes on the other end table.

Rodney's gaze lowered to his blanket-covered lap as he softly admitted, "Thinking of you is all that got me through this."

John was so touched that it took him a while to find his voice. "You don't have to simply think of me anymore. I'm here now."

"Yes, but . . . for how long? I'm not . . . strong enough to lose you right now. How long before playing nurse goes from being a fun novelty to an odious chore? How long before the few pathetic things I might still be able to manage in bed bore you to tears?"

God, Rodney was really trying to kill him here. If his throat got any tighter, John was sure he'd choke to death.

"Did you miss the part where I said I loved you before?" John forced the words out, though they sounded gruff and pained to his own ears. He was hurt by Rodney's questions, but he realized that if their positions were reversed, he'd probably be wondering the same things. One thing he understood totally was self-protection and that was what was motivating Rodney at the moment.

"I know you mean that, John. I really do. I just can't . . . ."

"Yes, you can," John said. "Look at me, please?" When those upset blue eyes met his own, John continued, "If I were you, I'd be asking myself the same questions. How long is this guy going to stick around? Is he going to walk out when things get tough and break my heart? How can I believe him? I understand that you're . . . worried. How could you not be?"

"I – I've never felt like such a . . . coward before," Rodney whispered.

"You're not a coward," John insisted. "You've been horribly hurt. You're in pain most of the time. You don't know if it's ever going to get any better. Who wouldn't be scared by that? And now you've got me complicating the issue. You only knew me ten days. You've got no way of knowing . . . how important you are to me."

Rodney was listening. His eyes were fixed on his face instead of lowered.

Encouraged, John went on, "You didn't say a single thing before that didn't make sense. You have every right to be cautious, and . . . I have no way of convincing you that I meant what I said. The only thing that's going to do that is time. I shouldn't have tried to rush you before. So . . . what say we just spend today together, hanging out here on your couch? I'll come back tomorrow and every day after that. If you get to the point that you feel comfortable doing something more, that would be great, and if you don't, I'll still be here."

"That doesn't sound like it will be much fun for you," Rodney said.

"Let me worry about that, okay? Right now all I want is to be with you," John said.

To his relief, Rodney no longer looked either panicked or stressed out.

"You just want to sit here with me and not do anything?" Rodney repeated, as if he couldn't understand the idea.

"Well, I thought we might talk," John said.

To his delight, Rodney's lips quirked into that crooked smile that he remembered so well. "Talking is good. What did you want to talk about?"

"It's been nearly a year since I saw you, why don't you tell me what's been going on with you, and I'll do the same?" John suggested.

Rodney's expression darkened. "Most of the recent stuff hasn't been very fun."

"I still want to hear about it," John said. "Why don't you start with when we got back to New York last January?"

"Before we do that, I'd better call Laura. She's waiting to hear from me before they leave for her sister's. You'll, um, get my wheelchair for me out of the bedroom before you leave, won't you?"

His gut taking a dive for his shoes, John gave a mute nod. Abruptly, he understood why Laura had seemed so upset when she'd left earlier. In his effort to not inflict his condition upon him, Rodney had forced her to leave him stranded here in the living room.

John passed the nearby phone over to Rodney. It was impossible not to listen in on the call in the peaceful apartment. It wasn't like Laura and Rodney were exactly quiet speakers.

"Hello, Laura," Rodney said.

"Oh, thank god. I was so worried," Laura said. "Are you okay? Do you want me to come down and get the chair now?"

"Ah, no. Um, John said he'd get it for me."

"He's still there?" Even from two feet away from the receiver, John could hear how excited Laura sounded.

"Yeah."

John was pleased to note that Rodney was blushing a little.

"Are you two, umm . . . ." she began.

"It's a little early to say," Rodney answered, so red now that even his ears were turning color.

John was relieved that Rodney didn't rule out the possibility. For all that he was willing to wait until Rodney had enough faith in him to let him inside his guards and open his heart again, he really hoped that Rodney would be thinking along those lines from the start. Rodney had been so badly injured that John wouldn't have been surprised if he'd had no interest in sex, but the blush and the vague response pretty much told him that Rodney still wanted him.

"That's great, Rodney, really great," Laura said. "I don't think I could have had a better Christmas present."

Rodney's gaze strayed his way and then he softly said, "Me, either. Um, you should go to Joan's now. Everything's okay here."

"I'll stop by when we get back, all right?" Laura asked.

"Okay, have fun," Rodney said.

Her voice filled with mischief as she answered, "You, too. Bye."

"Bye. Don't drive Carson too crazy."

John heard her chuckle, say 'bye' again, and then the line went dead.

Rodney hung up the phone and put it on the table beside his water glass.

"She's a special lady," John commented into the silence, thinking that he owed her for how well she'd watched out for Rodney.

"I, um, honestly don't know what I'd do without her and Carson," Rodney said. "She insisted from the day I woke up in the hospital that I should call you and let you know what happened."

"I wish you had," John said, thinking how much pain and doubt that would have spared him.

"I'm sorry. I – "

Not liking how upset Rodney seemed, John quickly smoothed things over with, "It's not like you didn't have a lot to deal with. You did what you had to. We found each other again; that's all that counts. Come on, you were going to tell me what you did after January."

Seeming relieved, Rodney nodded and started telling him about his breakup with Trent.

It felt good to sit there and listen to Rodney talk. It brought to mind all those days on the ship when they'd exhausted each other sexually, but weren't tired enough to sleep yet.

Rodney had done him proud, John realized as he listened to Rodney talk about the accelerated science program he was taking at NYU. His scholastic achievements were as impressive as John had expected them to be, but Rodney hadn't just gone back to school. In the time they'd been apart, he'd bought a piano and overcome his reservations about playing.

John knew his grandmother would have been delighted to hear the affect that day Rodney had spent with her had had on his life. If there ever was a testament to his grandmother's magical influence on people, it was probably Rodney playing again. It was a fitting legacy to her memory, John thought.

When Rodney reached the part about the accident, all the animation left his face and voice. John shuddered when Rodney went into greater detail about the extent of his injuries. As he started telling him about all the surgeries and tests he'd had, John didn't know how he'd gotten through it all. His stomach clenched in a tight knot as Rodney told him how he'd had to lie perfectly still for twelve hours while the technicians performed a Myelogram on him and how, after all that, the results had been less than encouraging,

He'd been through so much. It broke his heart to think of Rodney suffering this way. John couldn't keep from reaching out to touch Rodney's arm. It was only then that he realized that Rodney was trembling.

After his promise to go slow, John didn't want to push things, but he couldn't ignore how shaken Rodney was by his narrative. John shifted closer and tentatively laid his arm across Rodney's shoulders. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. This has got to be upsetting to you."

Rodney took a deep breath and said, "I want you to know. It's just . . . hard."

"Well, maybe we should save the rest for another day, then," John suggested.

"Are you leaving now?" Rodney sounded alarmed, like he feared he mightn't come back.

"I'm not going anywhere," John said.

"Well, you are going to France tomorrow," Rodney said, his eyes seeming haunted again.

"No. I'm going to cancel the reservation. I'm not leaving you," John said. "I just made those arrangements because it shook me so bad to see you last night that I didn't think I could take another accidental meeting."

"Won't you lose your deposit if you cancel this late?" Rodney questioned.

"Rodney, it's okay. Don't worry about it. This is the first time I've felt . . . happy since July."

"Me, too," Rodney agreed. Although he wasn't anywhere near glowing, John thought Rodney did look less peaked.

"Does this bother you?" John asked, shifting his arm up and down on Rodney's shoulders to let him know what 'this' was referring to. John hoped Rodney was okay with it, for it felt amazing to be so close after so long.

"No . . . I really like it," Rodney admitted, settling closer to him.

John couldn't help but notice how Rodney's hips and legs stayed pretty much where they were while Rodney's shoulder and left side leaned into him.

Rodney appeared to notice the direction of his gaze. "They're pretty much dead lumps. I don't have any sensation in them at all."

"Well, it's only been six months since the accident," John tried to be encouraging, though it hurt to see Rodney like this. "Nerve damage takes a long time to heal, doesn't it?"

Rodney nodded, adding with his usual ruthless honesty, "If it heals at all."

"It never hurts to stay positive," John said, giving Rodney's shoulders a squeeze.

The bleak nod Rodney gave spoke volumes on the low state of his spirits. John couldn't imagine how it would feel to lose the use of his legs. Just thinking about the possibility left a cold lump of dread in his stomach.

"It's pretty overwhelming, isn't it? I mean, I can't imagine what you must be going through," John said tentatively, hoping he wasn't saying too much.

Rodney was looking up into his face, close enough to kiss, so he caught the relief that flashed through his eyes.

After a moment, Rodney gulped and tentatively said, "Sometimes I just wish I'd died in the accident. It just seems like that would have been easier."

John's gut twisted in revolt at the very idea, but he realized that Rodney was being honest and he also got the distinct feeling that Rodney hadn't discussed this with anyone else. Rodney was just being like he'd been on the ship, laying it all out in the open for John to see, the bad and the good.

Although he wanted to put those kinds of thoughts totally out of Rodney's mind, John recognized the level of trust that was being bestowed upon him. Gulping back his own reaction to the words, he laid his left hand over Rodney's where they were clasped on his blanketed lap and softly said, "I can understand how you might feel that way, but . . . I sure am glad you're alive. I . . . don't know what I'd do if you weren't."

John shivered as Rodney's hands clasped his hand between them. It had been so long since anyone had touched him or held him this way that even that simple gesture made his heart race.

"You . . . feel so good," Rodney said.

"So do you," John said, taking a deep breath of the Rodney-scented air. He couldn't believe that after nearly a year that he'd still remember what Rodney had smelled like, but that sweet, earthy fragrance was as embedded in his consciousness as strongly as his mother's Chanel # 5 had been.

Apparently, the same thing was on both their minds, if Rodney's next words were anything to go by. However, they seemed to be at opposite poles when it came to their outlook on the issue.

"Even if we tried, it would never be the same," Rodney said, his voice shaking, "not while I'm . . . like this."

"You don't know that," John protested, turning his hand so that he could lace his fingers through Rodney's. "We won't know what we can have until we try." Thinking that maybe Rodney might find that line a little threatening, John added, "But we don't have to worry about any of that tonight."

He couldn't judge if Rodney's sigh were disappointed or relieved.

Rodney sat there snuggled against him for a moment or two longer before he hesitantly asked, "John? Can I . . . ?"

The words cut off abruptly, as if Rodney had reconsidered the wisdom of what he was about to ask.

"What?" John questioned. "Can you . . .what?"

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head. "It, um, really wasn't a fair request."

"Hey," John said, giving those broad shoulders another squeeze. "You can ask anything you want of me, okay? Go on, tell me."

"I just wondered if . . . maybe I could hug you again? It's been so damn long . . . ."

John didn't wait to be asked twice, nor did he wait for Rodney to initiate it. He turned and gathered Rodney into his arms. After a minute or so of just holding on tight, Rodney slowly lowered his cheek onto his shoulder. There was no doubting that this sigh was one of contentment.

Rodney's warmth seemed to fill his whole being. He felt so damn good in his arms as John shifted to make them more comfortable. He ran his hand over the soft brown sweater covering Rodney's back. That earned him another sigh.

Rodney seemed almost starved for touch, John thought as the simple back rub turned Rodney's previously tense body to jello. But, then, who wouldn't be touch-starved after all the pain Rodney had endured? In a reality where everything hurt, a simple pleasure like this probably felt like a gift from the gods. John knew it felt that way to him.

John shuddered at the feel of Rodney's moist breath playing over the sensitive skin of his neck. As always, that area was hotwired to his groin. He went hard in a heartbeat.

Horrified by his sloppy lapse, John took a deep breath and tried to relax that part of his body that hadn't quite gotten with the hugging-only program. It was a terrible thing to be grateful for, but his erection was pressed against Rodney's left thigh, so chances were Rodney couldn't feel it.

Rodney's hands were doing their own stroking over his back, to John's further destruction. It was impossible for him to get his body to calm down with Rodney breathing into his neck like that and touching him. He'd spent too many nights dreaming about this to be able to ignore the reality. So, he did his best to remain still and hide the effect Rodney was having on him.

The hug seemed to last forever, but finally, Rodney drew back a bit, raised his head, and looked into his eyes.

Confusion crossed Rodney's features as he looked at his face. John watched Rodney's brow crease with puzzlement as his gaze swept down his sitting form.

"Oh . . . you're . . . ." Rodney seemed totally shocked.

"Sorry. I . . . here let me," John started to move away, but Rodney's arms tightened around him like iron.

John could feel his cheeks warming in the breathy silence as they watched each other. He felt like a crude schoolboy. What the hell was wrong with him? He was an adult. He should have control of himself.

To his intense relief, Rodney didn't seem freaked out by his arousal.

"Don't be sorry," Rodney said, still looking like he'd had the surprise of his life. "I . . . I didn't expect that you'd find me . . . . I know that you said that you still felt that way, but I didn't really believe . . . ."

That he'd find him attractive. John heard the words as clearly as if Rodney had spoken them aloud.

"I know we said we wouldn't," John said, "but I can't help what I feel. I love you. When you're close like this . . . I can't help myself. Here, let me move over here and – "

Those arms holding him didn't give an inch.

Rodney's expression appeared torn for a moment, and then he hesitantly asked, "Did you want to . . . try?"

John's stomach dropped like it was in an elevator that had just fallen thirty floors. But they'd already had this conversation and agreed to wait.

"Not until you're sure of me," John said, wanting Rodney so bad that he could already taste him.

"I, um, think you were right before," Rodney said. "I'm not going to know for sure until . . . until we try. If we wait a day or a week or a month, it's not going to matter. In the long run, it's all going to come down to whether you stick around."

"I'm not going anywhere," John assured. "But . . . I'm not sure this is a good idea right now. You have to want to, too, and you really don't seem . . . um . . . .."

As much as he wanted Rodney, he didn't want Rodney to make love to him purely for his sake. Rodney still didn't sound like he was . . . aroused. Considering what Rodney had said earlier, it was possible that he mightn't be capable of sex at all yet.

He shivered as Rodney's hand moved to stroke his cheek. Rodney's tired-looking eyes were soft and troubled as he answered, "I do want to. I guess I'm . . . scared. It's just that . . . if this goes wrong, I'll have nothing left to hold onto."

"You'll have me to hold onto," John corrected.

Unable to bear the uncertainty in Rodney's eyes another moment, John leaned forward and kissed him.

He wasn't sure what he'd expected. Maybe for Rodney to be a little wooden or not respond at all, but the moment his mouth covered those soft red lips, Rodney seemed to melt, and he had the Rodney he remembered back.

Rodney gave a shocked gasp into John's mouth and opened his lips at the first swipe of his tongue.

His mouth tasted different than John remembered. The coffee flavor was familiar and expected, but there was a bitter trace in his saliva as well that John slowly realized must be the remnants of the medications Rodney was on. But it was still Rodney, and within moments his provocative scent and Rodney's own special flavor that was below those artificial ones were shooting through John's system like a narcotic drug.

The kiss seemed to go one forever. It was only when John grew a little light-headed that he realized that as pleasant as this was, it probably wasn't a good idea to asphyxiate Rodney during their first five minutes together. He reluctantly pulled back for air.

Rodney blinked at him and panted in a few fast breaths. John loved the stunned quality in his gaze. "God, that was . . . ."

John nodded, feeling a grin spill across his face. "It sure was." Taking in the narrow couch, he suggested, "We should probably move inside. I don't think there's room here."

That awful tension that he'd hoped was gone seeped back into Rodney's attitude. "Okay. My chair is – haaahhh!"

John scooped Rodney up, blanket and all, before he could finish the line. Rodney felt way too light in his arms, but he was real, so real.

Rodney's arms clamped around his neck in a panicked grip. "You can't carry me. I weigh a ton. I'm going to hurt your back – "

John silenced the complaint with another kiss. Rodney didn't even try to pull back; he just threw everything he was into the kiss the way John remembered. God, he could just lose himself in this man. Just holding and kissing Rodney like this felt fantastic. All his fears of this working out were fading as Rodney tried to devour him. His lover's body mightn't be working as well as they both wished, but the changes hadn't been so extreme as to kill the passion between them.

When they broke the kiss a long time later, there wasn't even a remnant of the protesting stiffness. Belatedly, he realized that his picking Rodney up like that might have been viewed as an infringement on his independence. John knew he was going to have to be careful about that. His instincts were to help as much as he could, but Rodney's earlier narrative had told him how fiercely Rodney was fighting to maintain his autonomy. But Rodney seemed okay with this. More than okay, he was holding on the same way John was, as if he couldn't bear to let go for a second. Giving Rodney a victorious smile, he carefully carried him to the bedroom.

He used his foot to nudge the folded wheelchair out of the way and then held Rodney up with one arm as he pushed aside the bedspread and blankets. Of course, with the way Rodney was clinging to him, he probably needn't have bothered, but with Rodney's legs not working, he needed some support on his lower body to keep from falling. When John had cleared the bedclothes away and was down to crisp white sheets, he lowered Rodney down to the mattress.

"You're a lot stronger than you look," Rodney said.

John didn't point out that Rodney had lost so much weight over the last year that there really wasn't that huge a difference in their weights anymore. Instead, he softly said, "So are you. That's why we fit so well together."

"I don't remember you being this sappy," Rodney said, but he was smiling and his eyes were bright with contained laughter.

"That's me. Sap on demand," John joked as he climbed onto the bed.

"Just don't get any on the sheets," Rodney said.

John opened his mouth to respond, and experienced a moment's awkwardness when he realized that Rodney couldn't easily slide over to make room for him, so he just climbed over him to the inside of the bed.

"That was a really smooth move," Rodney acknowledged. "You barely hesitated."

"We'll work it out," John promised. He'd hoped Rodney had missed his hesitation, but the man never missed a thing.

"It's going to be like that all the way," Rodney warned. "My legs are nothing but dead lumps."

John grimaced. "I wish you'd stop calling them that. It's not exactly sexy."

"I'm not exactly sexy," Rodney corrected, looking worried again.

"Yeah, you are," John said, lying down on his side to face Rodney. He let his left hand slide down the heavy brown wool on Rodney's chest, undoing the blue blanket that was still wrapped around his lower body. The black cords Rodney was wearing looked warm as well as good on him. John's palm stroked over the ridged softness of the pants covering Rodney's upper thighs before coming to rest in the center of Rodney's left thigh.

Rodney raised his head and stared down the length of his body. "I can't feel it there at all. It's really weird. That would have driven me crazy before the accident."

John remembered how sensitive Rodney was here. The complete lack of response was a chilling demonstration of Rodney's paralysis.

"How about here?" John asked, moving his palm six inches upwards.

Rodney gave a glum, negative shake of his head.

"Not there, either," Rodney said when John moved his hand to just within the crease where his thigh met hip.

Rodney had said the flesh was dead, but it had taken this practical demonstration for John to appreciate just what those words meant. It was a hell of a lot of territory to have no feeling in.

John held his breath and moved his hand slightly to the right, where the generous mound of Rodney's genitals was covered by the heavy black cords he was wearing.

The flesh surged under his palm as soon as he touched Rodney. The movement told John that he still had sensation there before he heard Rodney's confirming gasp.

"Looks like we've got liftoff," John said with a grin.

"Yeah, I, um, definitely felt that," Rodney said, seeming relieved.

John leaned in for another kiss that seemed to go on forever. Rodney's hands were running all over his back and sides, as if he couldn't get enough of touching him. After a few minutes of that restless stroking, they settled on John's shoulders and guided him on top.

When they parted, John couldn't help but ask, "I'm not too heavy, am I?"

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head. "You feel amazing."

"So do you." Reading the uncertainty in Rodney's eyes, John reached out to run his hand through his soft, fine hair. "I can't believe that you're really here. I keep thinking I must be dreaming. It used to drive me nuts how I couldn't get you off my mind. No matter how hard I tried to forget you or how mad I got, every damn night you'd still be there in my head."

"I-I'm sorry I hurt you so badly. Laura kept telling me I was being selfish. I was just so scared that you'd stay with me out of . . . a sense of obligation or something like that," Rodney said. "Even now, I'm having trouble believing that you can still feel this way about me."

John's fingers petted through Rodney's hair. He could feel a little rough ridge across the skin beneath the hair that he realized must have been where they operated to drain the fluid. He knew that with everything Rodney had been through, it would probably be a while before he could believe that something could go well for him.

"I guess that with everything you've been through, that's understandable. I know that the accident pretty much turned your entire world upside down, but . . . there isn't anything here that we can't handle," John said. "I don't want to diminish what you're going through, but . . . Rodney, your being in a wheelchair doesn't really change anything for me. You're still you. You're still smart, sarcastic, and sexy as hell."

"Sarcasm isn't normally considered a desirable trait in a lover," Rodney pointed out, but his eyes were soft and hopeful.

"It is for me," John said.

The kiss that followed John's assurance was a little desperate, but that was all right with him. He was feeling pretty desperate himself. He needed Rodney in his life so badly it hurt, but until Rodney believed that the need was mutual, there was always the chance that he'd send him away.

John felt like he was fighting for their lives here. It was a lot of pressure for a sexual situation, but he figured that Rodney was under a similar strain. Making love for the first time since the accident had to be tremendously frightening. Rodney had always had trouble believing that he desired him the way he did. Rodney had said more than once during the cruise last year that he'd felt like he was playing out of his league with him. John couldn't imagine how hard this must be for him now. Even the most confident man's self-image would be shaken by the loss of his ability to walk.

So John took his time kissing and touching Rodney, commenting often on how good something felt or how exciting he found him.

"Can we get rid of this?" John asked, giving the collar of Rodney's brown wool sweater a tug as it impeded his trail of kisses.

At Rodney's nod, John pulled the sweater and undershirt below it up and over Rodney's head.

He smiled as Rodney gave his shirt a questioning pull a moment later. He'd been worried that Rodney's doubts would dampen his interest, but so far Rodney seemed his old self.

"You've got the most gorgeous chest," John said as all that pale white skin was revealed. There wasn't much light spilling into the bedroom through the door that connected it to the living room, but it was enough to make love by.

"I was just about to say that to you," Rodney said, running a flat palm across John's chest hair. "You're so . . . beautiful."

"So are you," John insisted, nuzzling down Rodney's neck to his collarbone.

Seeming uncomfortable, Rodney protested, "John, you don't have to – "

"I'm not," John cut in, tweaking one of Rodney's pink nipples between his fingers and making him gasp. "The accident hasn't changed anything I love about you."

John replaced his fingers with his tongue, to some very interesting vocal results. He hadn't lied before. Everything he'd loved most about Rodney was still there.

He spent a long time pleasuring Rodney's nipples before he followed the thin swath of hair down the center of his belly to where it disappeared below the waistband of his cords.

"Okay?" John asked, gripping the copper button at the top of Rodney's fly.

Rodney gave a nervous looking nod, and John opened the cords, peeling them and the underwear off as he pulled them down.

For all that they didn't work, Rodney's legs didn't look all that different. They were a little thinner than he recalled, but after six months of not being used, that was only to be expected. It was still hard to accept that Rodney couldn’t feel anything there, but when he stroked back up the inside of Rodney's thighs, there was no reaction at all.

Remembering how insistent Rodney always was that there be equal states of nudity, John paused to remove his own pants and underwear. He shivered as Rodney's eyes swept over his bare form.

Realizing that if he were nervous getting naked after so long that Rodney must be in an even worse state, John ran his fingers over Rodney's semi-erect, moist shaft and said, "I thought you'd look different somehow, but you're as perfect as ever here."

Last year, his holding Rodney like this would have brought Rodney to explosion point, but the cock in John's hand twitched a bit, but otherwise remained at half-mast.

"The scars are all on the other side. Do you want to see them?" Rodney asked.

John didn't really feel it was necessary, but he knew Rodney needed him to, and probably wouldn't believe in him until he'd seen the worst, so he gave a slow nod.

John had never realized how much coordination was necessary between the upper and lower body for even such a simple task as rolling over. Rodney clearly had it down to an art, for, though it appeared to be a laborious process of pushing and moving at the same time, he rolled over onto his stomach fairly quickly.

John stared down that long expanse of white, white skin. Rodney's upper back and shoulders were well-formed and pretty much as he remembered them, but the area on his spine right above the small of his back was a war zone of ghastly incision scars.

"They're pretty gruesome, aren't they?" Rodney whispered.

John moved to stroke over the battlefield of scars. "No. They look like they must have hurt like hell, though. Are you comfortable on your stomach like that?"

"Ah, yeah, why? Ohhhh . . . that's . . . ummmm . . . . "

As he nuzzled the vulnerable area at the nape of Rodney's neck, John smiled as his lover's words faded into incoherent sounds of pleasure. His hands running restlessly across Rodney's shoulders, he felt how tense the muscles were below that snowy skin. After enduring so much pain, it wasn't any real surprise. Rodney probably spent half his day all tensed up waiting for those headaches to hit.

When he'd kissed and nuzzled Rodney's neck as much as his lover could stand, John raised his head, placed his hands on Rodney's broad shoulders and then began to carefully massage those rock-tight muscles. As ever, Rodney was vocal in his appreciation, his body melting under John's hands as he made small pleading sounds of pleasure.

John took his time and worked his way down Rodney's back. He was cautious around the incision area when he eventually got to it, but he made sure he worked those muscles as well.

Rodney's groan changed in nature as John's fingers moved to acquaint themselves with the sleek skin of his butt. John didn't allow it to distract him, though. He worked those lush cheeks the same way he had the shoulders, pitting his determination to make Rodney feel better against the stiff little balls of tension there. Those knots didn't stand a chance. When he wanted to, he could be just as stubborn as a certain genius he knew.

John hesitated a moment when he finished with Rodney's buttocks. He wasn't sure how much good working the paralyzed section would do, but he couldn't think of a better way of demonstrating that the paralysis didn't make a difference to him.

It was a little unnerving when after a couple of minutes of kneading those once-powerful hamstrings, Rodney looked over his shoulder and asked, "What are you doing? You just stopped . . . oh. Jeez, I couldn't feel a thing. You're probably wasting your time there."

"Is it hurting you or bothering you?" John asked.

Rodney gave a slow, negative shake of his head.

"Then I'm not wasting my time."

John spent the next fifteen minutes dismantling Rodney's legs. They mightn't be in use or have any sensation, but they sure as hell had tension knots throughout them.

"All done," John said at last, stopping himself from reaching out to help as Rodney began the laborious process of rolling back over.

"Thank you," Rodney said as he shifted to get comfortable on his back. "That was fantastic."

"I was just thinking the same thing," John said with a grin. "It feels incredible to touch you again."

"Not as good as it feels to be touched, I can assure you," Rodney said. John was delighted to see that brightness he'd feared gone forever back on Rodney's face.

"Oh, I don't know about that," John protested. "You up to me doing the flip side?"

"Huh?" Rodney questioned.

"You've got two sides. I only got to touch one of them."

"Oh. Sure . . . whatever you want," Rodney offered.

This time, John started with Rodney's legs. The skin there felt just as supple as it had everywhere else. It was still hard for him to comprehend that Rodney couldn't feel anything he was doing here, but the lack of sound effects was a dead give away that Rodney was oblivious to all touch here. Well, maybe not oblivious, John corrected when he glanced up to find Rodney following the movement of his hands with rapt attention.

When he was through with this side of his legs, he moved directly up to Rodney's neck and shoulders, where he was promptly rewarded with those wonderfully appreciative sighs and moans.

There seemed to be a huge amount of tension and knots in Rodney's upper arms, but with the double duty they were pulling making up for his paralyzed legs, that was hardly surprising. John took a long time on each arm, kneading and circling his fingers into the tight spots until they loosened up. By the time he was done working Rodney's second hand, his lover seemed boneless.

The quality of his touch changed as he worked his way from Rodney's shoulders inwards, towards his collarbone. Rodney had been half-erect all along, but John saw that impressive cock twitch and grow in size as his fingers reacquainted themselves with Rodney's nipples. It was only moments before his tongue wanted in on the action and he had Rodney gasping and panting just the way he used to when they were together. Those helpless sounds of pleasure were the sweetest thing John had heard in nearly a year. He drank them in and did everything he could to encourage more of the same.

It wasn't hard. Rodney's skin was still addictively tasty. John couldn't get enough of his flavor.

When it seemed he'd pleasured Rodney's nipples to satiation, his tongue greedily followed that inverted arrow of body hair down Rodney's way too flat stomach. This was probably the place Rodney was most changed. John remembered generous curves and lovely cushioning flesh here, but Rodney was almost too thin now. Well, too thin for Rodney.

Very soon his path brought him to those crisp brown pubic curls. John knew it was weird as hell that he'd be so turned on by another guy's pubic hair, but he loved running his nose and fingers through those tight curls. The scent here was pure, undiluted Rodney, as arousing as it was addictive. If the sounds Rodney were making were any indication, he loved the attention as much as John did.

His jaw bumped into Rodney's straining erection while he was playing in the curls, causing Rodney's whole body to jerk in response.

"Oh, please, that's . . . yes . . . ." Rodney babbled as John collected that red-tipped cock into his hand.

When he lowered his head to sample the flavor of that amazing shaft, the cry Rodney gave was one of sheer ecstasy. Rodney was just as big here as he recalled. The cock felt huge as it pulsed against his tongue as he swallowed him whole. After a year's abstinence, his jaw and throat had to work to relearn the trick of this. But it really was sort of like riding a bicycle. No matter how long, you really didn't forget. Soon, John found himself bobbing up and down on that tasty flesh as he paid worship to this man he'd feared he'd never hold again.

John was totally into what he was doing, his body as aroused by sucking Rodney as he'd be by being sucked by most other lovers, when Rodney's hand landed on his hip and gave a tug.

"Shift over this way," Rodney grated out.

Since the tugging wasn't really giving him much choice and all he really wanted to do was suck Rodney forever, John let himself be moved.

A heartbeat later, he was absorbed into a warm, wet heaven, and John was getting as good as he was giving. His whole body ignited under that incredible suction. Rodney was still an artist at this. Within moments, John felt like he was at explosion point.

It was so much like their first night together, John hazily recognized, when their mouths had found each other's cocks and they'd formed that perfect circuit of pleasure.

After so long a separation, neither of them had much in the way of staying power. After what felt like far too short a time, Rodney groaned around his cock, his body freezing for a second before giving way to climax. The vibration set off John's own orgasm, and it seemed they were locked together in that mind-blowing ecstasy for an eternity.

John swallowed and swallowed as Rodney seemed to liquefy in his mouth. He could feel Rodney doing the same as he came.

That salty, bitter gift filled John's mouth and entire being.

It was just like he remembered . . . the sense that their skins ceased to act as borders between them and they melted into one being. He couldn't tell where he stopped and Rodney began, or what was his pleasure and what was Rodney's. It was all just one dizzying swirl of sensation, with Rodney the center point of his universe.

When the pleasure-flung parts of his being began to reconnect, the first thing John was aware of was Rodney's limp cock slipping out of his mouth. He laid his head on Rodney's nearby thigh and just breathed in his lover's scent, feeling Rodney do the same.

Eventually, John felt together enough to move. He sat up and shifted around in the bed until he was beside Rodney. Then he pulled the covers over them both, gathered the drowsing warmth that was Rodney into his arms, and settled his head on the pillow beside Rodney's.

"You okay?" John asked as those bleary blue eyes focused on him with a visible effort. Belatedly, he recalled how utterly exhausted Rodney had looked when he'd first seen him earlier.

"Mmmm . . . I-I'm really not dead." Despite his exhaustion, Rodney seemed surprised.

"No, you're nowhere near dead, thank God," John whispered, his arms tightening around Rodney.

Rodney seemed to force himself to ask, "Was it okay? I mean, I couldn't do much for you and – "

John's mouth silenced the rest of the fretful inquiry. When he'd gotten as familiar with the taste of his own semen in Rodney's mouth as he was with Rodney's, he pulled back and said, "It was perfect, just like you."

Rodney's hand rose to John's face. His fingers stroked thoughtfully over his cheekbone as he said, "I . . . really feel like you brought me back to life tonight. I didn't think I could ever feel that good again."

"Funny, I was just thinking the same thing myself," John said, giving the tip of Rodney's nose a playful kiss.

Rodney smiled up at him. "Seriously . . . thank you. What you did was – "

"Just the start," John promised when it seemed words failed Rodney.

"I mightn't ever be able to . . . ." Rodney began to worry again.

Before the fretting could take too strong a hold, John squeezed Rodney tight, stared back down into his face, and said, "What we just did, that's who and what we are. The rest . . . doesn't matter. We just have to concentrate on that feeling, and everything else will work itself out."

"I can almost believe that when you look at me that way," Rodney softly admitted, reaching up to run his fingers through John's hair.

John's stomach nearly melted when he realized Rodney was wearing that glow he remembered. "Try . . . for my sake? I need you to believe."

Rodney gave a slow nod. "It's easy to believe in you, John. It's . . . me I doubt."

John had some idea how much it took for this often-arrogant man to make that type of admission. "You're the strongest person I know. We will get through this."

"I like the sound of that 'we'," Rodney said.

"I do, too," John said around a yawn.

They fell quiet as they lay there staring into each other's eyes. It felt like he was drowning in Rodney's tired gaze.

After a long time of that pleasant staring, Rodney said, "You know I love you, right? More than anything."

John grinned. "Me, too."

"I know. I could feel it when you were touching me. No one ever . . . I mean, even the parts that have no sensation . . . I could see the emotion on your face and . . . you're just incredible."

"Only with the proper inspiration, and you're all the inspiration I need," John said. Thinking that he should probably clear some stuff up before Rodney had a chance to work himself up about the future, he continued, "If you think you could stand having me around, I'd like to move in with you when you think we're ready for that."

The hand stroking through his hair froze. Rather than being upset by the suggestion as John had worried might happen, Rodney appeared almost overjoyed. "I guess tomorrow would be too soon, huh?"

John chuckled because that was just so the Rodney he remembered. "Not for me."

"Me, either," Rodney said. "I am awake, right? I mean, all my wishes just came true here, and that is so not the program I'm used to lately."

"That's going to change," John promised, loving that crooked smile. "But right now I think you need some sleep." It was weird, but it was like he could read Rodney's mind or something. The fear that their reunion really was some kind of fantasy was clear in Rodney's face. "I'll be here when you wake up. You can count on that."

And all the rest of the mornings after that, John silently vowed.

Rodney shifted around beside him until they ended up in the position they'd fallen asleep in most nights on the ship, with Rodney's cheek pillowed on his shoulder and Rodney lying half on top of him, although it took a lot more work to get Rodney situated now.

Thinking that all his own wishes had been granted here tonight, John's arms tightened around Rodney as he followed his love down to sleep. He didn't know what the future might hold for them, but he knew that whatever it contained, as long as they were together, they'd be able to handle it.

The End

Cover art by Yosimite

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